When it comes to election administration, one consistency is that there is no consistency in how jurisdictions and counties around the nation handle voting. A new report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund examines this labyrinth of ballot access regulation, combing through more than 3,000 county election administration systems to profile the best and worst practices.
Here are six of the worst counties for voting:
Maricopa, Ariz. This county, where Phoenix sits, was singled out in the CAP report as having a higher than normal level of provisional ballots cast — 37 percent of votes on Election Day 2012, which was 76 percent higher than the state average. This is often a sign of structural problems at the polling site, like an extraordinary number of mistaken names and addresses on the voter rolls, for example. My colleague Aura Bogado reported at Colorlines that year about the many problems endured there, especially for Spanish-speaking voters. Interestingly, Obama’s election administration commission cited Arizona as a model for other states, mainly because of its online voter registration system. Yet it took weeks for Arizona to finally tally all of its votes, in large part due to problems in Maricopa, which was also the case in 2004 and 2008. Many Latino voters complained of being intimidated and not having their votes count.
Denver, Colo. The CAP report found that this county had the highest rate of provisional ballots cast in the state, and also the highest rate of absentee ballots rejected. Something’s wrong when you toss out absentees at a rate that exceeds three times the state average. Throughout, Colorado State Secretary Scott Gessler was locked in a legal battle with Denver election clerks over his wish to deny ballots to voters deemed “inactive” — a battle he ultimately lost. Meanwhile, Gessler had been pressuring county election officials, with special emphasis on Denver, to purge thousands of voters, again mostly Latino, based on false claims of voter fraud.
Duval and Hillsborough, Fla. These two counties, which hold Jacksonville and Tampa respectively, were the fifth and sixth worst election performers in the state. Duval carries the distinction of having the highest rate of provisional ballots cast in the state, while Hillsborough saw the most voters removed from rolls. I reported in Tampa in 2012, where I found that a huge number of voters were being disenfranchised due to mistakes made at the county and state levels misidentifying those with felony criminal records. Florida is one of the few remaining states that permanently bans citizens with felony records from voting. These problems mostly fall on African Americans.
Pasquotank, N.C. This county has been at the center of numerous controversies, especially in its seat Elizabeth City, where students at a historically black university have been at constant odds with county election officials. The county not only had some of the highest rates of absentee ballots rejected and voters purged from rolls, it is also where black college students have been dropped from rolls for dubious reasons.
Norfolk, Va. In 2012, Virginia was also one of the few states that permanently banned former felons from voting. Though former governor Bob McDonnell eased the ban before his last day in office, and though his successor Terry McAuliffe may ease it even more, the existing legacy is that there are 10 counties with double-digit rates of voters purged from rolls, fueled in part by the felony disenfranchisement. In Norfolk, close to 15 percent of voters were purged in 2012.
Looking at variables such as voter turnout and registration rates, provisional ballots cast and rejected, and absentee ballot rejection rates, CAP shows not only that our voting system is broken — that’s not news — but where it’s broken the most. Turns out, many of those counties with the most failed processes are those with major urban zones.
One thing the report doesn’t attempt to answer is why voting is broken where it’s broken. My own thoughts are that race determines this as much as place, as I wrote this month at Demos. Of course, urbanized counties experience more breakdowns due to their larger populations: More people, more problems. But if election officials are adequately prepared — meaning they have enough staff and resources for managing the system — those problems should be alleviated. Indeed, there are urban-centered counties where this has happened.
To understand why this information is important, you have to travel back to the night of November 6, 2012, when President Obama expressed in his victory speech an uneasiness about the fact voters had waited hours in line to reelect him. The same long-line curse had doubled as a blessing for Obama in 2008, when in some corners they were displayed as the new “Eyes on the Prize” portraits of America electing its first non-white president. However much it benefitted him, though, Obama said “we need to fix that.” It was said as an aside, but voting rights advocates held him to it, pegging the problem as a “time tax.” Obama created the Presidential Commission on Election Administration the following February to address the issue.
The irony is that in similar cases, long lines would be considered a marketing strategy. Many a nightclub will intentionally allow bottlenecks at the door so that the line to get in stretches around the block, giving a heightened appearance of popularity. Some of that may hold true for voting lines — people may see a line snaking from a poll location and figure something important is going on that they need to get involved with. But as the CAP report spells out, when it comes to voting long lines can be far less promotional for democracy.
“The current patchwork system of voting administration has resulted in access to voting that varies by state and, as seen here, by county,” reads the report. “The ease with which citizens should be able to access their right to vote should not vary depending on whether they live in the right state or the right county.”
Officials, for the most part, like their election rules al dente: Hard enough so that the integrity of the ballot is protected, but soft enough so that people aren’t disenfranchised. But in the worst counties, as identified in the CAP report, rules have often hardened to the point of burdening voters, like no same-day registration policies or stipulations that make it difficult for someone to vote provisionally. Since often the people who make these rules are picked by party, these decisions can be partisan by design. They can also be racial, and not only because of how closely race tracks with party.
Those issues aside, Norfolk not only had some of the highest provisional ballots cast and rejected, but also some of the worst rates for voter registration and turnout. The presence of three major universities — Norfolk State (a historically black university), Old Dominion and Virginia Wesleyan — makes it sound like there may be quite a few college students disenfranchised in addition to those with felonies.