How the 2019 Election Could Be a Preview of Voting Issues We Might Face in 2020
This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The unofficial outcomes from Tuesday’s 2019 elections are a looking glass into what may unfold next year, especially when the results are close and partisan Republicans won’t concede, and as new voting equipment doesn’t perform as advertised.
The biggest contrast from Tuesday night’s results was the contrast between what unfolded in Kentucky and Virginia. In Kentucky, the Democratic gubernatorial challenger, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, has a 5,100-vote lead over Republican incumbent Matt Bevin. Not only has Bevin not conceded, but he has also suggested that foul play was involved (even though he’s yet to offer any evidence and Republicans won every other statewide office). And a Bevin ally, the state’s Senate president, said the legislature could act to overturn the vote and reinstate Bevin.
“Tonight is just preliminary returns & KY is at beginning of the post-voting process of canvassing & verifying returns, with possibility of recount, etc.,” tweeted Ned Foley, who directs Ohio State University’s Election Law program and is an expert in post-election challenges and recounts. “But I don’t think it’s too much to say that this is worth watching as a test of how USA handles close race in current climate.”
In contrast, in Virginia, Democrats won by wide majorities in both state legislative chambers, retaking the majorities in clear victories that were unassailable. The victory gives the Democrats control of the executive and legislative branches for the first time in 26 years, where Democrats have pledged new gun controls, raising the state minimum wage and other policies.
While many analysts will discuss how these outcomes were partial referendums on a Republican Party led by Donald Trump—and by politicians like Bevin who are cut from the same truculent cloth—there is another lesson for 2020. That lesson is the GOP can only attempt to seize power by any means if the unofficial results are close enough to allow a litigious and partisan fight.
“This is what worries me the most right now,” tweeted Josh Douglas, an election law and voting rights professor at UK College of Law. “If this does go to an election contest in KY legislature, the legislature’s say is final. And R’s control the leg by a bunch. But hopefully there are enough who wouldn’t go for this gambit if there is no evidence of any issues.”
The obvious takeaway here is Democrats will need to win by very big margins in 2020 if they want to banish the current generation of extreme Republican leadership.
New Voting Systems
There were also some eyebrow-raising incidents on Election Day as new voting systems were deployed—including as test runs for wider use in 2020’s presidential primaries. At the same time, there was a noticeable absence of reported cyber-security incidents, which suggests that efforts by state and federal officials to strengthen election infrastructure were working.
Two incidents—one in Georgia and another in Pennsylvania—stand out on the new voting equipment front. Both are examples where underperformance, owing to outsourcing technical tasks to private contractors, impeded the voting process and undermined public confidence, according to local news reports.
In Georgia, six counties were testing a new voting system to be deployed statewide in 2020’s March primaries.
“Poll workers weren’t able to create voter access cards on new voting check-in computers manufactured by KnowInk,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “Those cards activate touchscreen voting machines so that they display the ballot associated with the jurisdictions where voters are registered.”
In other words, these counties are using a one-computer system and software to check in voters, who, in turn, will then move to another computer system that will bring up their correct local ballot. These systems, which local officials said were synced during their early voting period, somehow didn’t coordinate on Tuesday. Poll hours were extended to accommodate voters who were forced to wait.
“Let’s get these kinks resolved now, before March 24,” Carol Heard, chief elections officer for Decatur County, told the Atlanta paper. “My hair was red before today. Now it’s gray.”
In Pennsylvania, some counties also were experimenting with new voting systems in advance of much wider deployments in 2020. In Northampton, “the county’s new voting machines appear to have miscounted the results” in a three-way local judicial race, the Allentown Morning Call reported in its Wednesday print edition.
The new system, an ExpressVote XL from Election Systems and Software (ES&S), the nation’s largest voting machinery vendor, wasn’t counting votes accurately, the county GOP chair said—pointing, in this case, to an actual evidence trail. “With 105 of 155 precincts reporting, Democratic candidate Abe Kassis had received just 164 votes. Democrat John Morganelli had 28,582 and Republican Victor Scomillio had 17,185,” Morning Call reported.
The ExpressVote XL has a touch screen interface used by voters, but also prints a ballot summary card. Local election officials said they would have to collect the paper records from every precinct and then manually recount them. There were open questions, however, about whether what looks like a programming error affected other races as well.
“County Executive Lamont McClure said he believes the issues with the machines were limited to the judicial race, but poll workers across Northampton County flagged questionable results in at least six other municipal races,” the Morning Call reported.
2020 Looking Glass
These snapshots from this week’s general elections highlight two major areas where public confidence in election outcomes may be undermined.
In the first instance, as seen in Kentucky, a high-profile partisan accusation of foul play was thrown out without apparent evidence. And it was followed by the threat of a partisan power grab; having the state’s legislature overturn an early election result to reinstall the incumbent. In contrast, in Virginia, wide victory margins that could not be questioned led to the much more peaceful transfer of power in that state’s legislative majorities for the first time in a quarter-century.
And in Pennsylvania and Georgia, technical glitches with using new voting systems created issues that undermined confidence in the process and reported outcomes. In Georgia, those issues were at the front door, where voters could not get a correct local ballot. And in Pennsylvania, the programming of new touch screen–based systems apparently undercounted votes to such a degree that local officials said that hand recounts would be necessary.
All of these red flags are warnings for what could blow up in 2020, should the presidential election come down to a handful of narrow victory margins in swing counties (such as Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley) and belligerent incumbents declare that non-specified foul play or technical irregularities were involved.
At least the November 2019 elections did not (yet) have reported cyber-security incidents. But that, too, may change in 2020.
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.