Our elections have been melting down. Disastrous, spectacular collapses have become commonplace in this unimaginable year already filled with a pandemic, record unemployment, and civil unrest.
While the failures are complex and manifold, many have been predictable and similar from state to state. The patterns are clear. There are not enough places to vote in person. There are not enough poll workers. Lines at limited precincts stretch to unimaginable, hourslong lengths.
Meanwhile, the demand for vote-by-mail has swamped underfunded election boards in many states, and sometimes overwhelmed a wobbly Postal Service. As a result, tens of thousands of voters have requested absentee ballots but not received them by election day, forcing them, as well, into those already interminable waits. Also: During a pandemic.
Endure the lines? Risk catching a deadly virus? If other nations forced their citizens to make this decision, we would watch in horror and question their commitments to democracy, fair elections, and public health. This is now the situation in America almost weekly. And that’s the backdrop for today’s election in Kentucky, where some of those same conditions exist that led to chaos in Georgia, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
The U.S. Senate primary on the Democratic side — which once looked like a runaway for former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, the preferred candidate of the D.C. establishment — has become the hottest race in the nation. But when Kentucky voters head to the polls on Tuesday, many will be in for quite a road trip.
In the past two weeks, an underfunded challenger, the unapologetically progressive state Rep. Charles Booker, has won important endorsements and surged statewide, elevated by a movement for racial justice — and continued outrage over the police killing of Breonna Taylor in a “no-knock” raid in Louisville in May — that has found significant support even in white, rural Kentucky.
Booker represents western Louisville in the Statehouse. And while much of Louisville has been transformed by boutique hotels and downtown bourbon distilleries, his district includes some of the poorest ZIP codes in the state. Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city, in Kentucky’s largest county, Jefferson County, which sprawls 54 miles wide and is home to some 616,000 registered voters. It is home to a large portion (46 percent) of all of Kentucky’s black residents. And on Tuesday, there will be one polling place for all of Jefferson County.
You read that correctly. One polling place, out by the fairgrounds and the airport — a considerable bus ride for many even from downtown — for 616,000 American voters.
Kentucky has worked hard, and in a bipartisan manner, to expand absentee and early voting. State officials have done many things carefully and correctly during this run-up; the Democratic governor, the Republican secretary of state, and many state residents have bristled over national media coverage and celebrity tweets suggesting voter suppression is afoot.
But disenfranchisement can take many forms. Most voters, those who are not especially online, who don’t follow the governor’s live briefings, begin to pay attention to an election as it draws closer. So for those who are just tuning into this race now, who maybe did not request an absentee ballot weeks ago, who saw millions of dollars of McGrath ads on television and perhaps did not even know that a rising black legislative star wanted the opportunity to run against Mitch McConnell this fall as well — well, it is not going to be easy for them to vote.
Say you’re a young black man or woman in west Louisville who got inspired by Booker this weekend, as his campaign became a sensation. Now your only way to cast a ballot is to get to the fairgrounds on Tuesday. That’s a considerable effort and a giant barrier for many who can’t spend an hour or more on public transportation simply to vote — and that’s before whatever line they encounter at the polls. Not every job will be that flexible. Perhaps child care, or caring for a sick parent, gets in the way. What if they have asthma or a respiratory disease and they’re nervous about voting in person?
It’s terrific that Kentucky has expanded mail-in options, and those will work for many people. They will work for those who dialed into this race weeks ago. Those for whom the Democratic primary for Senate has not been top of mind? Head to the fairgrounds and get in line.
That’s disenfranchising. And it privileges certain voters — voters with cars, voters with more flexible jobs, voters with easy child care — over others. That’s wrong.
At the same time, there are already reports from Kentucky, as well, as from other states, of voters who have requested ballots that have yet to arrive. They also should not have to travel miles to cast their votes. They risk being disenfranchised unless they, too, are able to travel many miles and wait in what seems likely to be a long line at their county’s single in-person precinct. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is supposed to be a Steve Martin comedy, not what is necessary to cast a vote in Louisville on an election day. (Indeed, it’s not just Louisville; each county will have just one in-person voting location, so there may be deep inequities in large, rural counties as well.)
Mail-in voting is going to be a crucial part of holding an election during a pandemic this fall. But we also need robust in-person options and many accessible drop-off centers — whether for voters who do not receive an absentee ballot, decide to vote at the last minute, lack access to reliable mail service, or just feel more secure casting a ballot that way. One voting precinct per county is not enough. It will be wonderful if Kentucky sets a voter turnout record on Tuesday, as some predict. But that will not be a sign that there was no disenfranchisement. If anyone who wants to vote cannot, because they do not have the ability to spend hours on a shuttle bus or in a line, they have been disenfranchised. That’s unacceptable.
This has become a serious problem elsewhere. A big part of the problem is that it’s understandably difficult to find poll workers — often senior citizens, who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 — during a pandemic. States have also had to spend precious resources to quickly ramp up mail-in voting. Officials in Kentucky and elsewhere have suggested that fewer in-person options are necessary because so much voting will be done via mail. Statewide, Kentucky will open fewer than 200 of its usual 3,700 polling places.
That’s the kind of statistic that gets attention on Twitter, and does not take into account the expanded mail options. But it’s also what happened in Georgia, where elections melted down earlier this month. Officials expanded mail-in voting and opened 80 fewer precincts in Atlanta alone, moving multiple in-person locations at the last second, and consolidated so many spots that one precinct serviced 16,000 voters. We all saw the un-American, yet all too familiar, lines that ensued. And we all saw which voters and neighborhoods waited the longest.
This creates a stout barrier to the ballot box for any last-minute voter. It has also been a serious problem in state after state for tens of thousands who have not received their mail-in ballots in a timely fashion. If you were one of those voters in Milwaukee back in April, the city managed to open just five of 180 precincts. If you were one of the 160,000 voters in Maryland, or thousands more in this predicament in Washington, D.C., your option was to accept the long line or accept disenfranchisement.
Race matters deeply here as well. There are patterns here, and patterns that black voters are especially heightened to, in Georgia and elsewhere, since these burdens consistently fall disproportionately onto communities of color. Shuttering polling places, moving them around, locating them far from black neighborhoods — these are time-honored means of disenfranchisement. Officials often say that when they reduce the number of precincts, it’s to close ones that are no longer used. Studies show, however, that these closures fall disproportionately in communities of color. Now the majority of black voters in Kentucky will have one polling place for any of the hundreds of thousands of registered voters who want to vote.
The well-meaning Kentuckians defending their state from outside criticism and concern should also pause and remember the way these very methods have disenfranchised black voters historically and in the present day. They might put themselves in the shoes of an 18-year-old black woman in west Louisville who became inspired by a candidate and a cause in the days before an election, wants her voice heard, but can’t get off from work.
What is intentional disenfranchisement, and what is inevitable as under-resourced officials try to transition from in-person voting to majority absentee? It does not matter if the end result is forcing voters into that unacceptable election day choice.
Here is the broader problem: We’re barreling toward November and we don’t seem to be learning from our mistakes. Primary day needs to stop being Groundhog Day. After watching Wisconsin and Georgia, after seeing the vote-by-mail challenges in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., it defies logic that Kentucky could believe that one precinct per county is enough, or that voters will receive their mail-in ballots on time.
We are closing in on four months before the presidential election, when turnout will be higher and an election meltdown in just one of these states could throw the nation into constitutional chaos. If these primaries have been a dry run for the fall, one thing is certain: We are not close to ready.
We know what we need to do. We need robust vote-by-mail and in-person options. We need to automatically send mail ballots to registered voters far ahead of the election and reduce time-consuming application hurdles. We need to fund the Postal Service if we are going to conduct an election by mail. And we need to fund all aspects of absentee-ballot expansion if we want an efficient election, trained workers, and the most expedited count. Some politicians and electoral officials, of both parties, have embraced many of these measures, whether the Republican secretaries of state in Iowa and Ohio, or the Democratic governor of California. And some, yes, including Kentucky, have crossed party lines and worked together.
Yet we have not done enough. Time is running out. We have spent trillions to shore up the economy. The $4 billion necessary for Election Day is a mere rounding error for democracy. It is a small price to pay.
David Daley is the author of Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy and the national bestseller Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.
Santita Jackson is the host and executive producer of The Santita Jackson Show, which airs daily on WCPT-AM in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison, Wisconsin, and Facebook, and the co-host and executive producer of the Keep Hope Alive with Rev. Jesse Jackson radio show.