Midterms clear of dreaded chaos as voting experts look to 2024

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Before Election Day, fears mounted about possible poll chaos.

Election officials warned of pollsters steeped in conspiracy theories, falsely claiming that then-President Donald Trump had not actually lost the 2020 election. Democrats and suffrage groups worried about the effects of new election laws, in some Republican-controlled states, that President Joe Biden denounced as “Jim Crow 2.0.” Law enforcement agencies monitored potential threats at the polls.

Still, Election Day and the weeks of early voting that preceded it went fairly smoothly. There were some reports of unruly pollsters disrupting voting, but they were scattered. Groups of armed vigilantes watched over a handful of Arizona ballot boxes until a judge ordered them to stay far away to ensure they wouldn’t intimidate voters. And while it could take months to figure out their full impact, the GOP-backed voting laws that went into effect after the 2020 election didn’t seem to cause major disruptions like they did during the Texas primary in March.

“The entire ecosystem has become more resilient in many ways in the wake of 2020,” said Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election director who advises a number of voting rights organizations. “A lot of effort went into making sure everything went well.”

While some voting experts’ worst fears did not materialize, some voters still experienced the sort of routine mistakes that occur on a small scale in every election. Many of these fell disproportionately on black and Hispanic voters.

“It went better than expected,” said Amir Badat of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “But we have to say that with a caveat: Our expectations are low.”

Badat said his organization recorded long lines at several polling places from South Carolina to Texas.

There were particular problems in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. A shortage of paper ballots and at least one polling station opening late led to long lines and led to an investigation of the mostly Democratic county by the state’s Republican authorities.

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The research is, in part, a reflection of how certain Election Day mood swings are increasingly falling on Republican voters, who have been discouraged by Trump and his allies from using mailed ballots or voting in person early. But it’s a very different problem than Texas had in the March primary.

Subsequently, a controversial new voting law that increased requirements for mail ballots led to about 13% of all such ballots being rejected, much higher compared to other elections. It was an ominous sign for a flurry of new laws passed after Trump’s loss to Biden and false claims about mail-in voting, but no problems of that magnitude have been reported for the general election.

Texas changed the design of its ballots, solving many of the problems voters had putting identifying information in the right place. Other states that added rules for voting didn’t seem to have widespread problems, though voting rights groups and analysts say it will take weeks of sifting through data to figure out the implications of the laws.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is collecting data to determine whether new voting laws in states like Georgia have contributed to a drop in turnout among black and Hispanic voters.

Preliminary figures show turnout this year was lower than the last midterm elections four years ago in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Texas — four states that have implemented significant voting restrictions since the 2020 election — although there could be a number of reasons why .

“It is difficult to empirically assess the effect these laws have on voter turnout because there are so many factors involved in voter turnout,” said Rick Hasen, a suffrage expert at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. . “You also have enough exaggeration on the Democratic side that any kind of change in voting laws will have a major effect on the election, which has been proven not to be the case.”

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In Georgia, for example, Republicans made it more complicated to request mail-in ballots after the 2020 election — including by requiring voters to provide their driver’s license number or other form of identification instead of a signature. That may be one reason why early in-person voting rose in popularity in the state this year, with voter turnout down only slightly from 2018.

Jason Snead, executive director of the conservative Honest Elections Project, which advocates for stricter voting laws, said the fairly strong voter turnout in the midterms showed fears about the new voting rules were overblown.

“We are on the back end of an election that should have been the end of democracy, and it wasn’t at all,” Snead said.

Pollsters were a major concern of voting rights groups and election officials heading into Election Day. The representatives of the two main political parties are an essential part of any secure election process, qualified observers who can object to alleged rule violations.

But this year, groups joining conspiracy theorists challenging Biden’s 2020 victory recruited many pollsters, and some states reported that aggressive volunteers caused disruptions during the primary. But in November there were fewer problems.

In North Carolina, where several counties had reported problems with pollsters during the May primary, the state election commission reported 21 incidents of poll misconduct in the general election, most during the early, in-person voting period and by members of campaigns rather than pollsters. The observers were responsible for eight of the incidents.

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Voting experts were pleasantly surprised there weren’t more problems with pollsters, marking the second general election in a row when a feared threat from aggressive Republican observers failed to materialize.

“This seems like an increase from 2020. Is it a small increase? Yes,” says Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. “It’s still a trial run for 2024 and we can’t let our guard down completely.”

One of the key organizers of the poll watcher effort was Cleta Mitchell, a veteran Republican election attorney who joined Trump on January 2, 2020, calling Georgia’s top election official when the president asked if the state would “find” enough votes to declare him the winner. Mitchell then formed an organization to train volunteers to keep an eye on election officials, which was seen as the driver of the polls’ rise.

Mitchell said the relatively quiet election is confirmation that groups like hers were simply concerned with electoral integrity rather than creating disruptions.

“Any training provided by those of us who did such training included instructions on behavior and that they should be ‘peaceful, lawful and fair,'” Mitchell wrote in the conservative online publication The Federalist. “But without evidence, the closer we got to Election Day, the more hysterical the headlines became, warning of violence at the polls due to too many observers watching the process. It didn’t happen.”

Voting rights groups say they’re relieved their fears haven’t materialized, but they say threats to democracy remain on the horizon for 2024 — especially with Trump announcing his candidacy again. Wendy Weiser, a voting and election expert at the Brennan Center, agreed that overall things went smoother than expected.

“In general, there was no sabotage,” Weiser said. “I don’t think that means we’re free.”

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