Politics

Four County Officials Explain How They’re Planning to Avoid Past Mistakes

They had already dealt with hourslong lines and broken voting machines. Then COVID-19 hit.

A line of people outside, all spaced about 6 feet apart.
People line up to vote at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on Friday in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long lines, voting machine breakdowns, and other polling place dysfunctions have long plagued American elections. This year, the twin forces of the coronavirus pandemic and high turnout threatened to turn the polls once again into voting quagmires. We decided to check in with elections officials in counties that experienced snafus in the past two election cycles about how they recovered and whether they’re prepared this time around.

Hamilton County, Ohio

Representative: Sherry Poland, director of the Board of Elections

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What happened in 2016: During early voting in 2016, there was a 4,000-person line that stretched more than half a mile, forcing people to wait for hours.

How they handled it: “We did have a long line in those final few days, but it was very peaceful,” said Poland. “We had the equipment that we needed. We had the staffing that we needed. It was just the fact that there were limits to the space.”

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What they learned: “What our board has done sine 2016 is we’ve moved the Board of Elections facility,” said Poland. “We were in a space that was in downtown Cincinnati that had almost no parking for voters. And in the space itself, we were spread out over three floors.”

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How will this Election Day be different? Ohio has a law limiting early voting to one polling place per county, so there’s not much that can be done at the county level to disperse the lines by offering more locations. Poland said, “What we are doing is really trying to promote and encourage people to either vote by mail or come to the Board of Elections if they wish to come early, but don’t wait until those final three or four days, because that’s when we tend to see the lines.” The Board of Elections has also been moved to a larger facility in a more central location that will have more clerks, more voting machines, and close to 1,000 free public parking spots.

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On Friday, which is traditionally the county’s busiest day for voting, the line at one point reached 275 people. Yet even then the wait time was only about half an hour. Given the high levels of mail-in and early voting, county officials anticipate that fewer people than usual will show up in person on Election Day.

Clay County, Missouri

Representatives: Republican director Patty Lamb and Democratic director Tiffany Ellison

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What happened in 2016 and 2018: In 2016, there were waits of up to 3½ hours in five of the county’s largest precincts. And right when the polls opened at 6 a.m. in 2018, the electronic ballot boxes began having issues accepting ballots because of user error on the part of the election judges.

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How they handled it: Speaking about the wait times during the 2016 election, Lamb said, “Northland Cathedral [a polling place] was our biggest challenge. I actually ended up getting more people up there to work. I took more poll pads, more electronic roster books so we could create more check-in points, and that alleviated the time. People still had to wait, but it dropped their wait times down to 15 to 20 minutes.”

What they learned: “We are becoming a pretty large county. We’ve got around 170,000 registered voters. … We have multiple precincts in some of our locations and they were just getting too large and overloaded,” said Lamb, who added that there were only 60,000 voters when she first started her job in 1998. “We realized that we had problems with long lines and long waits.”

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How will this Election Day be different? “More training for our poll workers, making sure they understand,” says Ellison. “What happened in 2018 is that when they started up the machines, there was one final step that some of the polling places forgot to do.” The county is also ensuring that there are always two people setting up the machines, rather than one, which should cut down on user error. The county also opened five to six more voting locations and recruited dozens of more people to prevent long lines and help with COVID-19 measures, like curbside voting.

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Clay County just broke its single-day voter record when 538 people came to the polls on Saturday. Wait times have ranged from 20 to 45 minutes.

Allen County, Indiana

Representative: Beth Dlug, director of elections

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What happened in 2018: Long lines, one of which reportedly had around 100 people, led to some leaving before voting. This was due to issues with poll pads not printing tickets.

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How they handled it: “You know, 6 a.m. in the morning is the most stressful time there is. That’s when we open the polls, and everyone has been working feverishly up to that point to get everything ready,” said Dlug. “It’s hard when you have volunteers, who are working one day out of the year, to train them on every single item that they need to get perfect. We have checklists, we tell everybody, ‘Here’s what you do in this sequence and make sure that before you open those doors, all of these things are done.’ But it happens where not everything goes perfectly. And so then you have to go back and rely on your contingency plans and just do the best you can.”

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What they learned: “One of the big initiatives in Indiana right now is coming up with what they call ‘incident response plans’ and thinking about all the kinds of things that could happen on Election Day and how we’re going to respond to them. We’re actually working with Indiana University, who’s going around and giving lectures to the county clerks, talking about how to write up an incident response plan and thinking about all the things that could go wrong on Election Day,” Dlug said.

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How will this Election Day be different? “More voting machines, more poll workers, more training sessions. Everything is just at a bigger volume of what we normally do. Just amp it up quite a bit to handle the volume. It’s not necessarily any more difficult. It’s just busier,” Dlug said.

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Allen County had only one polling place open from early to mid-October, where wait times were anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Last week, Allen opened four satellite polling stations earlier than usual in order to deal with the higher turnout the county is seeing.

Gwinnett County, Georgia

Representative: Joe Sorenson, communications director

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What happened in 2018: Malfunctioning voting machines led to four-hour lines, causing people to leave before voting.

How they handled it: “We’ve been under scrutiny before because we’re a large metro county in a state that does have a lot of voters,” said Sorenson, noting that the media has been hypervigilant about errors in its polling places. “When you have a lot of news agencies beating down the door, it’s hard for your poll managers trying to run the election to actually get the job done and get things working again when they’ve got microphones and cameras in their faces.”

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What they learned: Georgia has rolled out new electronic voting machines. “The secretary of state’s office had been asking for new equipment for several years, but I think with 2016 and 2018, there’s definitely been an emphasis on getting something new and getting it picked,” said Sorenson.

How will this Election Day be different? Gwinnett received $7.4 million worth of new voting equipment in the beginning of 2020. Sorenson, though, says, “We’re expecting that things are going to take a little longer in 2020 voting, but we don’t have any testing for it yet because this is the first time any of us have done it with this equipment.” The new machines have an extra fail-safe step that prints the ballots and lets people check through them before the final submission, which will ensure accuracy but also take a bit more time.

But across Georgia, the new voting machines have been causing problems, with poll workers struggling to activate the system’s components and units blowing fuses because they require too much extra power. Gwinnett has seen a 308 percent increase in early and mail-in voting compared with 2016, already exceeding the total number of votes cast during that last presidential election. Lines have been at least an hour, and sometimes two hours, though polling sites are staying open late to accommodate people still waiting.

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