In many ways, Election Day 2018 was a good one for American democracy. Millions of people turned out to vote. An unprecedented number of women are headed to Congress, including the first Native American women and the first Muslim-American women to serve on Capitol Hill. In Florida, voters restored voting rights to more than a million people who had been disenfranchised for past felony convictions. In Michigan and Maryland, they approved same-day registration. In Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah, they said yes to fair legislative districts. But at the same time, the election provided evidence of what many activists and experts have been saying for years: the machinery of our democracy needs serious maintenance. Together, aging infrastructure and resurgent voter suppression have jeopardized equal voting rights in the United States, turning what should be a source of national pride into cause for alarm.
The costs of poor preparation and outdated election equipment were plain to see. In downtown Atlanta, voters stood in line for more than three hours because only three voting machines had been sent to serve more than 3,000 people. In Richland County, South Carolina, voters reported that machines were changing their selections. Officials worked to address the issue, but the county elections director told the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that he only had one technician for every five polling sites. In Maryland, two precincts ran out of paper ballots; in Detroit and New York City, malfunctioning machines caused many voters to simply give up.
These snares were avoidable. According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, the majority of America’s voting machines are obsolete. Election officials are aware of the problem, but many lack the funds they need to update their equipment. This raises the troubling possibility that wealthier districts will buy new voting machines, while poorer ones remain stuck with unreliable equipment. If we are serious about the health of our democracy, then we must not let voting become a “separate but unequal” proposition before the next election.
Not all the election problems were caused by technical glitches or staff shortages, however. Far too many Americans of color found themselves denied a voice by discriminatory laws and policies. In Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp used his position as secretary of State to hold up more than 50,000 voter registrations; although a federal judge ordered the state to relax its restrictions, hundreds of voters were still turned away. In Alabama, many voters listed as “inactive” were told they must cast provisional ballots, even though state law allows inactive voters to cast regular ballots if they fill out a new registration form.