Bookman: State needs to step up and fix voting system it bragged about

If Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is going to ask local election officials to handle historic high turnout, in the midst of a pandemic that has stripped the system of poll workers, using new and unfamiliar technology, then it is untenable to just declare your part of it a success and walk away. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

We should be proud of Georgia, or at least of its people. Their commitment to democracy, to being heard, to being counted, was impressive. They would not be denied.

Many stood in line for hours, stubborn and simmering in anger, insistent on casting their votes. They stood through rain, through sun, wearing masks against a killer virus, long into the night, determined to vote.

If only their so-called “leaders” had shown a fraction of that grit, determination and commitment to democracy. Instead we have been parties to a disaster, compounded by an infuriating round of finger-pointing and blame-shifting.

Let’s grant a few things. We should give credit to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for insisting on mailing out absentee-ballot applications to all registered voters in the state, over the angry complaints from colleagues in the Republican Party. Without that step, the problems on Tuesday would have been much worse. (If Republicans try in any way to curtail use of mail-in voting for the November election, when turnout is expected to be much larger, heaven help them.) 

Let’s also grant that under Georgia’s system, local elections officials have a lot of responsibility for actually running voting operations, and that Fulton County’s elections operations have been badly inadequate for a long, long time. They undoubtedly deserve a lot of the blame for what happened.

However.

As secretary of state, Raffensperger has bragged about this rollout being “the single largest deployment of election equipment in the history of the United States,” with Georgia “leading a national effort” to adopt a paper-ballot system. And if you’re going to ask local election officials to handle historic high turnout, in the midst of a pandemic that has stripped the system of poll workers, using new and unfamiliar technology, then it is untenable to just declare your part of it a success and walk away.

The bottom line is that together, state and local officials failed. The bottom line is, split responsibility is too often no responsibility.  It devolves into finger-pointing and blame-shifting, which is exactly what we have witnessed and it is time that it stopped.

The U.S. Constitution puts the responsibility to run elections on the state. The state is ultimately accountable. Around the country today, it’s the reputation of the state of Georgia that is being dragged through the mud. It’s Georgia that is the laughingstock, Georgia that is held up as the example of mass voter suppression and incompetence.

State officials have not been shy about stepping in when something matters to them. When local officials tried to take down Confederate monuments, state leaders intervened to outlaw it, because the fate of those monuments to rebellion and white superiority still matter to them for some reason. 

When local governments tried to tighten gun-safety laws in their jurisdictions, state leaders again rushed to pre-empt such efforts in the name of the Holy Second Amendment, again because it matters to them, a lot.

So don’t give us excuses. Fix it. Step the hell up and fix it, with whatever resources are required. The people of Georgia exhausted all their patience waiting in line Tuesday, and they have no more to give.

As the General Assembly reconvenes, it will find Senate Bill 463 on its plate. The legislation, which has already passed the Senate, is an attempt to improve the state’s elections operations and reduce wait times, and it contains some good provisions. 

However, the bill makes it more likely, not less likely, for mail-in ballots to be deemed illegal and tossed out for no good reason. Nothing in Georgia’s experience or the experience of states that have gone to all-mail balloting suggests that is necessary.

Furthermore, SB 463 would reduce the oversight role of the State Election Board and the secretary of state’s office, further diffusing accountability in a system where, as we’ve seen, diffused responsibility is already a major problem. No.  

We have to get this right. We are a divided people at the moment, with little trust in each other or in our government.  And if we can’t produce an elections system that is considered fair and transparent, with equal access to all citizens and an outcome that we can all trust, then it’s going to fall apart.