Battleground states ‘face risk of serious problems’

WASHINGTON — Key battleground states “face the risk of serious problems” in the Nov. 3 presidential election, House Democrats warned on Wednesday. The warning comes ahead of a House hearing on electoral integrity, and amid worries over how millions will vote across the nation in the midst of the pandemic.

The new report, from the coronavirus subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, examined election preparedness in Texas, Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin. Florida and Wisconsin, in particular, are crucial to the electoral prospects of President Trump, who may need to win them both to fend off a challenge from Joe Biden, his Democratic rival. 

Democrats, meanwhile, would like nothing more than to make inroads in Texas and Georgia, longtime Republican strongholds where Democratic overtures have been increasingly successful in recent years.

The new report, which was obtained by Yahoo News ahead of its public release, warned of “inadequate polling places and shortages of poll workers.” It also noted that “these risks are exacerbated by state policies restricting mail-in voting and early voting.” Trump has railed against voting by mail as a fraudulent exercise that helps Democrats, though there is no evidence that is true.

Rep. James Clyburn and the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis wrote a report warning that battleground states face a risk of serious electoral problems. (Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images)
Rep. James Clyburn and the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis wrote a report warning that battleground states face a risk of serious electoral problems. (Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images)

The subcommittee is headed by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a member of the House Democratic leadership, and whose endorsement of Biden was crucial to helping the former vice president secure a victory in the Democratic primary. As head of the coronavirus subcommittee, Clyburn has been an unsparing critic of virtually every part of Trump’s pandemic response, including preparations for the presidential election.

In recent weeks, Clyburn and other Democrats have trained their attention on Trump and the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a longtime Republican operative with no prior experience in the federal bureaucracy. Democrats say DeJoy is trying to make it more difficult to vote by mail in order to help Trump, who could benefit from lower voter turnout. DeJoy, who votes by mail — as do Trump and many top administration officials — has denied subverting postal operations to meet the president’s political needs.

Shortly after the release of the new report, the coronavirus subcommittee is to hold a hearing, “Ensuring a Free, Fair, and Safe Election During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Among those testifying on Wednesday afternoon will be Kerry Washington, the Emmy-nominated star of the hit political TV drama “Scandal.” Her (virtual) presence on Capitol Hill will underscore the widespread concern about voting in what many Americans, including Trump himself, are describing as the most consequential presidential election in the nation’s history.

The report, issued on Wednesday morning, highlights several problems in the four states the coronavirus subcommittee chose to examine. And it calls on governors to take charge on the issue, instead of simply leaving those problems for county-level officials to resolve. 

Texas, Florida and Georgia all became coronavirus hot spots throughout the summer, and thousands died there. Despite that dire reality, Democrats argue that those states’ Republican governors seem intent on having most people vote in person come November, when public health experts say the coronavirus could be joined by the seasonal flu for a devastating viral combination.

Voters in battleground states might mostly vote in person this November, which presents problems. (Cooper Neill for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
Voters in battleground states might mostly vote in person this November, which presents problems. (Cooper Neill for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

In Texas, where Republicans have resisted efforts to make it easier to vote by mail, some people who had worked as poll workers in previous elections said they would not do so again, citing coronavirus fears. In all, 127 of 254 county-level election officials said they were seeing poll workers decline to work the November election. And about 20 percent of counties in the state reported that staffing polling locations was their “primary concern,” according to the report.

“Voters could be waiting in lines for hours,” one county official warned. That and other feedback, the report notes, came before the coronavirus devastated the state earlier this summer. Although infections have receded there, lingering or renewed fears could prevent volunteers from stepping forward for the presidential election.

A similar situation appears to be developing in Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has been accused of voter suppression by his Democratic foes. 

The state allows all residents to vote by mail but does not send ballots automatically: A voter must request one from the state. Primary elections held in Georgia in June went poorly, with some people voting by mail but then showing up to vote in person, causing confusion at polling sites. 

There were notable voting issues in this summer's primaries in Georgia, where Brad Raffensperger (pictured) serves as Secretary of State. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)
There were notable voting issues in this summer’s primaries in Georgia, where Brad Raffensperger (pictured) serves as Secretary of State. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, told the committee that sending all residents a ballot “could have drastic negative consequences,” a reference to June’s primary. But the people who showed up in person then apparently did so not because they wanted to vote twice but because they feared that their mailed-in ballot had not been properly tabulated.

The state needs 20,000 poll workers, the report says, but only has about 5,000 “candidates so far.” The lack of poll workers is likely to impact Black voters. Dougherty County, for example, has all of 29 poll workers committed to working on November 3.  The county has a population of 88,000, 60 percent of whom are Black. And, as the report notes, not all voters are aware that they could request a mail-in ballot on the internet. Nor do all have access to a connection reliable enough to execute that request. 

“For Georgia voters who lack internet access, the online portal is useless,” the coronavirus subcommittee says. It accuses Kemp and Raffensperger of fostering “confusion and possible disenfranchisement.”

Florida will be among the most fiercely contested states on Nov. 3. The governor there, Ron DeSantis, is, like Kemp, a close ally of the president. The coronavirus subcommittee says that the state government in Tallahassee, which remains largely inert as a result of the pandemic — even as DeSantis has pushed businesses to reopen — “has not developed statewide projections of voter turnout, absentee ballots, or poll workers needed.” The report said that the DeSantis administration “is refusing to take an active role to ensure the general election runs smoothly.”

Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Trump, is the governor of Florida, which might be the election's most consequential state. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Trump, is the governor of Florida, which might be the election’s most consequential state. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)

DeSantis is currently involved in a legal effort to keep people with felony convictions from having their voting rights restored. He has refused to expand the window of early voting but also has made no apparent provisions to hire more poll workers in preparation for in-person voting. “Even in a normal year, without COVID, we have a lot of cancellations,” an elections supervisor in Citrus County told the report’s authors. “We don’t have anybody to replace these dropouts.”

Of the four states examined, Wisconsin is the only one with a Democratic governor, Tony Evers. But efforts to hire 30,000 poll workers, the report says, have been hampered by the absence of “statewide recruiting data,” making it difficult to know whether those efforts are progressing apace. 

The state plans to use the National Guard to help with November’s election, as it did in April, “but using the National Guard raises concerns about voter intimidation,” the report says, “especially given the history of law enforcement suppressing the votes of people of color.” 

Democratic staffers on the committee noted that the HEROES Act, which passed in the House in May, includes $3.6 billion for electoral safety. The bill has no chance, however, in a Senate controlled by Republicans. 

The report does note that states including California and Kentucky have ramped up efforts to recruit poll workers. And DeSantis, in Florida, has made Election Day a school holiday. But the lack of clear guidance from the federal government, as well as misinformation coming from the president himself, have led to a confusing and potentially disastrous situation.

“With just two months left before the general election,” the report notes, “states cannot simply defer to local election officials to address these problems.”

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