Editor’s Note: David Litt is a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and author of “Democracy In One Book Or Less: How It Works, Why It Doesn’t, and Why Fixing It Is Easier Than You Think.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Another Tuesday, another mess of an election. Georgia’s primary on June 9 featured new voting machines that malfunctioned and led to agonizingly long waits at the polls. The week before, it was Washington DC, where voting by mail went smoothly but where lines at in-person voting centers stretched for up to five hours.
This week, when Kentucky and New York hold their primaries, nightmarish wait times are once again all but certain.
If these primaries are a preview of our election this November, our democracy is in serious trouble. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, political scientists have shown that long voting lines during elections discourage voters from participating, and that election mismanagement is far more likely to affect non-White voters than their White counterparts.
Now, a public health risk has been added to these existing political risks, as crowded polling places become potential vectors for disease. And with President Donald Trump already attempting to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election and pushing for dramatic steps to limit voting, any chaos at the polls will erode the public’s faith in the final result regardless of which candidate prevails.
The good news is that it’s not too late to prevent a nightmare this November. But states – and citizens – must act now to protect our election, with solutions that go far beyond vote by mail.
We should start by addressing the poll worker shortage in America. This was a problem long before Covid-19. In 2016, for example, more than half of counties reported having trouble recruiting Election Day staff. The difficulty will only grow in 2020, because the majority of America’s poll workers are over the age of 60 – the group most vulnerable to coronavirus. Expanding mail-in ballots will help reduce the pressure on our voting sites. But as the primary elections have demonstrated, many voters will still choose to participate in person.
If we allow polling places to go understaffed, hours-long lines will inevitably result.
Yet recruiting more poll workers is not just doable – in some parts of the country, it’s being done. In Cincinnati, high school students can get the day off if they work the polls. This adds a new cohort of poll workers and provides young people with a civics lesson in the process. Even more important, this year at least, is that teenagers are among those least at risk from coronavirus complications. For the same reason, along with following Cincinnati’s example, states should stockpile personal protection equipment for all poll workers and make an extra effort to recruit those who have recovered from Covid-19 to work the polls.
Of course, the simplest way to make sure our polling places are adequately staffed is quite simple: pay poll workers fairly for the 12 – sometimes more – hours that they work per day. As I point out in my latest book, “Democracy in One Book or Less,” poll workers frequently across the country make less than $10 an hour and rarely make more than $15. As we’ve seen over and over again, Americans’ ability to exercise their fundamental democratic rights depends on those working the polls. We should pay them like the essential workers they are.
We should also train poll workers to do their essential work more effectively. Remarkably, the average poll worker receives just two and half hours of training. Some places, such as Philadelphia, require no poll worker training whatsoever.
This means that even in the best of circumstances, our polling places are designed and operated without any backup plan. If a machine goes down, or a sudden rush of voters threatens to overwhelm the site, we’re completely unprepared. That needs to change. The people in charge of our elections shouldn’t be improvising on Election Day. Instead, they should be preparing for all eventualities, including worst-case scenarios. This is especially important when it comes to voting technology – as we were so painfully reminded in the debacle that was the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, employing new technology without a clear plan B is far worse than employing no new technology at all.
The possibility of a Georgia-style Election Day disaster occurring in one or more swing states this November is very real. But it is also entirely preventable. There are simple steps all of us can take to ensure fairness and safety at the polls.
First, Americans at low risk for Covid-19 complications can volunteer to work the polls, with a specific focus on neighborhoods where lines have historically been the longest. Second, they can confirm the registration and polling place locations well before Election Day, preventing any time-consuming snags. Finally, voters who have the flexibility can vote early, either in-person or by mail, to take some pressure off Election Day.
We can also demand change from our local officials, who in most cases can take needed steps without waiting for the federal government to help. New voting technologies, training standards, polling place opening and closing hours, and poll worker recruitment practices are all decided at the state or local levels. State legislatures and state secretaries can expand, rather than shrink, the number of polling places, reversing the harmful trend of polling-place closures in recent years. They can also invest in more early voting sites, and keep them open for longer, reducing the number of voters who cast ballots on Election Day itself.
Finally, the federal government can step in with much-needed support. Congress can create its own set of nationwide standards to augment state and local ones. For example, lawmakers could mandate a maximum number of voters per polling place or do away with the overbroad voter purges of registration lists that wreak havoc at the polls when voters show up and are told that their names are not on the list. The federal government can also provide the funding needed to improve voting in America – and not just by replacing outdated technology. For approximately 50 cents per American per year, we could double the number of poll workers, and pay all of them $15 per hour.
Americans remain divided on all sorts of issues. But 70% of us agree that high turnout is good for our democracy, and on this issue, our government can still give the people what they want. Despite a primary season marred by fiasco after fiasco, we can bring down barriers to the ballot, preserve the integrity of our elections, and reaffirm a simple principle: if you want to vote, and you have the right to vote, you should be able to vote. In the United States of America, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.