Better management, less partisanship

We need to talk about how we can defend election officials from partisan allegations of corruption, when they are guilty only of poor, careless, and ineffective elections management.

I hope you perceived that sentence to be as goofy as I intended it. What I really want to know is when we voters are going to demand high-quality election administration. When poorly operated polling places make voting difficult, when ballots are mishandled or when votes are miscounted, I don’t care which party it hurts or whether it was fraud or incompetence.

I want it fixed.

Following every election, my Facebook news feed fills with reports of sloppy election-management practices. If partisans can find a way to use an incident to their advantage (and they always can), that’s all they want to talk about.

I spent last Saturday morning in New Berlin at a meeting of grassroots conservative voters who are loudly disgusted with Milwaukee’s election administration. They freely alleged corruption and fraud, which I think unlikely, but I appreciate their anger and distrust.

Their candidate for governor lost by 30,849 votes on a night when the City of Milwaukee took hours longer than expected to process 47,000 absentee ballots. City officials explained that they needed to copy more than 2,000 of those ballots by hand because the original ballots were too damaged for the machines to read.

How can anyone expect emotionally invested partisans to refrain from yelling “Corruption!” when something like that happens?

So election officials promptly apologized. They admitted they knew ahead of time exactly how many absentee ballots they would need to process. They accepted full responsibility and started an immediate investigation. They made a public commitment that in future elections, absentee ballots will be processed as smoothly in Milwaukee as elsewhere.

I’m being goofy again. They did no such thing. That’s the kind of response we’d expect from a city treasurer who had sluggishly processed 47,000 property tax payments because 2,000 had been mangled.

In reality, the first response from election officials was that the incident was “routine,” hardly a confidence-building defense. Then, Milwaukee Elections Director Neil Albrecht reframed concerns about management as insults to the workers, and blamed Republicans for not passing legislationthat would allow municipal clerks to run the voting machines continuously for weeks before each election. (He did not, however, offer a solution to the as-yet-unresolved details of how security and accuracy safeguards can be maintained when voting machines are in active operation for a six-week period instead of just one day.)

No sensible observer of politics will be surprised when I report that the Republicans in the meeting I attended spoke of using this incident to restrict all early and absentee voting around the entire state. They further mused about reviewing all Milwaukee absentee ballots to make sure the envelope signatures match those on file. They spoke of demanding a randomly selected ballot be thrown out for every ballot disqualified by a non-matching signature. (That’s called a ‘drawdown’ and is legal under current Wisconsin law.) Going after mismatched signatures has been used in other states to get votes thrown out or to make voters jump through hoops to preserve their votes.

Of course, such a process, if done only in Milwaukee County, would throw out many more Democratic votes than Republican votes. That’s why throwing out the ballots of randomly selected innocent voters while creating no consequences for the responsible managers looks like a ‘solution’ through their eyes.

So we’ve got a situation in which the Democrats are using this incident to push for running the voting machines continuously for six weeks, damn the security issues. The Republicans are using it to push for measures that would suppress legitimate Milwaukee votes.

Who is talking about better election administration? Who is asking why Milwaukee officials were prepared to count fewer ballots than they knew they had on hand? Did they not hire enough workers? Did they not assign enough equipment? Were their procedures less efficient than they could have been? Who is demanding to know why Milwaukee had, proportionately, more spoiled ballots than other counties, or what can be done to fix that? 

No one. We don’t hold our election managers to the same standards we hold other local government managers. Can you imagine what would happen to a city treasurer who defended comparable news about processing property-tax payments by calling it ‘routine’? When transactions are conducted in votes rather than dollars, our expectations of the managers plummet. 

When we tolerate–even excuse—elections mismanagement, partisans will always take advantage.  To use this case as an example, it is easy to see that people who want to expand early voting should aggressively work to make it as well-managed as possible, not to defend its mismanagement as unavoidable or routine.

Partisanship will never go away; tribalism is what humans do. But our election officials could stop insisting that voters accept poor planning and accidents as routine. If we want to hush the partisan complaints, we must hold our election managers to higher standards of care and competence. 

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