Two weeks after the polls closed in this year’s Ohio primary, two U.S. Postal Service employees showed up in the office of Diane Noonan, the director of elections in Butler County. The workers carried a tray of 317 unopened ballots that had been sitting in a Postal Service warehouse since the day before the election.
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On April 23, during the same week that Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state said he was contemplating a “significant expansion” of vote by mail, the Public Interest Legal Foundation emailed one of his employees under the subject line “28 MILLION ballots lost.”
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As part of our Electionland project, we work with journalists around the country to provide reporting resources about voting rights, election security and election-related misinformation. We’ve put together a series of tips and ideas about how local reporters can tackle election reporting well ahead of the general election.
The Richmond, Virginia, website that tells people where to vote and publishes election results runs on a 17-year-old operating system. Software used by election-related sites in Johnston County, North Carolina, and the town of Barnstable, Massachusetts, had reached its expiration date, making security updates no longer available.
In 2018, Facebook and Twitter decided to play a role in helping people register to vote in what promised to be a momentous midterm election. To do so, the social media platforms directed users almost exclusively to a website called TurboVote, run by a nonprofit organization known as Democracy Works. TurboVote was launched in 2012, and it promised to streamline voter registration and remind people to cast ballots on Election Day.
Evidently, things did not go seamlessly.
Since we launched our Facebook Political Ad Collector project in fall 2017, more than 16,000 people have participated in it. They all agreed to install a browser plug-in that anonymously sent us the ads they see when they browse Facebook. We used that data to understand and report on how political messaging on Facebook works, and how the system is being gamed to manipulate the public discourse.
Election Day in America brought its familiar mix of misery and allegations of mischief: Aging voting machines crashed; rain-soaked citizens stood in endless lines; laws that many regarded as attempts to suppress turnout among people of color led to both confusion at the polls and angry calls for recounts and investigations.
If the defining risk of Election Day 2016 was a foreign meddling, 2018’s seems to have been a domestic overload. High turnout across the country threw existing problems — aging machines, poorly trained poll workers and a hot political landscape — into sharp relief.
Melanie Taylor arrived at her polling place in a Charleston, South Carolina, church at 7:30 a.m., only to find more than 100 people in line ahead of her. Some of them had already been waiting since 6:15. The voting site was using a computerized login for the first time, and the system was down.
Text messages received by a slew of voters — from organizations like Vote.org, EveryTown for Gun Safety and TurboVote — reportedly included incomplete or incorrect information on where and when to vote.
Voters reported waits of an hour and longer on Election Day in areas ranging from the Gulf coasts of Texas and Florida to parts of Missouri and South Carolina, up to Chicago, rural central Pennsylvania and New York City. Polling places opening late, voting machine outages, understaffing and sheer volume caused some voters to abandon the lengthy lines before casting their ballots.
In the Houston area, voters waited over half an hour for polls to open as staff struggled to get voting machinery online. Voters who were late for their jobs left polling places in Brooklyn as high turnout and downed ballot scanners led to waits of up to two hours.
Polls have barely opened on the East Coast, and voting machines — and people — are already causing a few foul-ups. Experts say that the errors are normal, and that none that have emerged so far should prevent voters from casting a ballot.
“There are literally hundreds of thousands of voting machines being set up, mostly by volunteer poll workers, and sometimes there are problems,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “Most important thing is for the poll workers to contact their local election officials, who are most likely expecting some issues and will be ready to send help.”
In a rush of preparation for this year’s midterm elections, scores of state and local governments have been working to safeguard their election systems from being hacked or otherwise compromised.
At the same time, according to interviews with more than a dozen national, state and local election officials, the federal commission responsible for providing assistance to them has either been missing in action or working to thwart their efforts.
During three weeks of early voting, many of the problems Electionland has identified have been driven by higher-than-expected turnout. While experts say we won’t know if this means record-breaking turnout on Election Day, early voting in some states has already outpaced 2014, leaving election administrators struggling to keep up.
“There are two scenarios: One is that it’s been an unprecedented number of early voters, and the next is that it’s an equally historic Election Day,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies voter turnout. He said that while we won’t know which is correct until Election Day, “all signs” point to higher turnout on Tuesday. “We’ve never seen this level of engagement during a midterm election,” he said.
If that happens, experts say, voters are likely to see problems at the polls that are common when turnout exceeds expectations — long lines, malfunctioning machines and new voters confused by increasingly obscure election laws.
A Facebook page for a group called “America Progress Now” is running ads online urging progressives to vote for Green Party candidates in seven competitive races in the Midwest.
“People of Color NEED Marcia Squier in the Senate to represent them,” one of the ads says, promoting a Green Party candidate in Michigan. “Americans don’t have control over our government anymore. We’ve lost it to greedy, corporate capitalists,” says another, calling for voters to support Ohio Green Party candidate Joe Manchik.
The page features ads with images of prominent progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Problem is, America Progress Now hasn’t registered with the Federal Election Commission, as all groups making independent political expenditures are required to do. Six of the Green Party candidates being promoted by America Progress Now say they have no affiliation with the Facebook page, and most say they’ve never heard of the group.
On Tuesday, more than 250 reporters from over 125 newsrooms will be working together toward one goal. We are all part of Electionland, a collaborative journalism project dedicated to identifying problems with access to the ballot.
Elisabeth Warner drove 12 hours the weekend before Election Day so her daughter could vote.
Her daughter, Emma Warner-Mesnard, 20, attends Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, but is registered to vote in her hometown, Columbus, Ohio — about a three-hour drive away. Warner-Mesnard mailed the Franklin County Board of Elections her request for an absentee ballot in mid-October, but officials there determined her signature on the application didn’t match what they had on file and placed her ballot on hold.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will not patrol polling locations on Election Day, an ICE spokeswoman said in response to social media rumors of potential voter intimidation from the federal law enforcement agency.
False claims that ICE is interfering at polling locations have cropped up intermittently over the past two years. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, for example, an image spread on Twitter appearing to show an immigration officer arresting someone in line to vote. The image was a hoax.
As recently as Monday, computer servers that powered Kentucky’s online voter registration and Wisconsin’s reporting of election results ran software that could potentially expose information to hackers or enable access to sensitive files without a password.
The insecure service run by Wisconsin could be reached from internet addresses based in Russia, which has become notorious for seeking to influence U.S. elections. Kentucky’s was accessible from other Eastern European countries.