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Counting Matters
When Elections are Poorly Run, Citizens Lose
Jennifer Hora

As a political science professor teaching American government and institutions, perhaps my favorite lecture to give each semester builds to the amazingly simple theme of “counting matters,” that is, the system you choose to count the votes impacts the outcome.

In Porter County, Indiana, this abstract elections concept became all too concrete during Election Day 2018 and in the weeks that followed. My students at Valparaiso University were privileged—if that is the right word—with a local case study in the importance of election implementation and counting. Porter County was the last county in the state—and seemingly the nation—to report any and all election results. Several failures during Election Day contributed to that dubious distinction, but the makings of the fiasco were in place long before November 6.

Early in 2018, the three-person Porter County Election Board voted to shift election oversight from the Porter County Voter Registration Office to the Office of the County Clerk. The move made sense from a public administration standpoint; the Voter Registration Office is awkwardly led by five people while the clerk’s office has a single executive, so this move promised more streamlined decision-making and improved accountability. Moreover, the clerk vouched for the ability of her office to run the election correctly.

While this move seemed to be administratively advantageous and theoretically sound, the particulars of this situation were devastating. The county clerk herself cast the deciding vote in a two-to-one decision to transfer responsibility for elections to her own office. It is awkward, to say the least, when a person votes to give herself more power. Adding to this situation, the county clerk who would now oversee elections was herself on the November ballot as a candidate for county auditor.

The organization of voting in Porter County has been (and clearly now will continue to be) criticized for being unwieldy. The county has 133 precincts; each precinct is staffed by five people, for a total of 655 on-site poll workers. (In addition to these poll workers, numerous regular county employees also work elections in some way. For instance, the Porter County Sheriff’s Office delivers absentee and early-voting ballots to the correct precincts on Election Day.) Poll workers start with set-up at 5:00 a.m., staff precincts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then finish their day only when all the rows and columns total—optimistically 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., but often later. The means the county has to find 655 individuals willing to work a fourteen- to sixteen-hour shift twice a year. Other states have handled this challenge by hiring more workers and dividing the day into two eight-hour shifts. But this challenge is just the tip of the iceberg.

In November 2018, Porter County elections failed on at least four counts. The failures snowballed, leaving votes uncounted and unreported for sixty-six hours after the polls closed.

The first failure happened early on November 6, when at least twelve polling locations in the county remained closed after the official opening time. Lawyers for the Democratic Party went to court that morning to request that poll hours in those precincts be extended so voters had the full twelve hours to cast their ballot A judge approved that request for twelve locations.

The second failure, and by far the largest structural one, was the failure of the County Clerk’s Office to have absentee, vote by mail, and early voting ballots ready in a timely manner for the Porter County Sheriff’s Department to deliver to each of the 133 precincts.

This led to failure three: a lack of clear communication from the clerk’s office to poll workers explaining what to do now that Plan A—for poll workers to open each double-sealed envelope and feed each ballot through “the machine”—was impossible to carry out. Some poll workers reported that when they tried to call the office for direction, they were only able to reach a voicemail box that was not taking messages. (By this point, poll workers had been on duty for thirteen hours, and many had not had a break all day. Remember, too, that these 655 Porter County residents receive just over $100 for their election service.)

Failure four: any ballots cast outside standard format are, by definition, provisional. Absentee ballots not delivered by the required poll closing time are outside standard balloting format. Standards require provisional ballots be counted at a later date—November 16 for this election. This meant that voters who troubled themselves to request an absentee ballot or get themselves to an early voting location would not have their vote included with the next day results (and, to be honest, most citizens and media outlets are mainly interested in results reported on election night or the following morning).

As I write this, the situation in Porter County has not reached the level of the 2000 Florida debacle, nor even the 2018 Florida debacle—yet. Nevertheless, this seems unprecedented in modern times. Yes, the 2018 election saw high turnout for a non-presidential year; according to the New York Times, 51 percent compared to Indiana’s normal midterm turnout of approximately 40 percent. However, turnout was up for the May 2018 primary, and as early as October indicators suggested that election officials should expect high turnout in November, especially in states with competitive U.S. Senate races, which Indiana had.

Over the past decade, thirty-seven of Indiana’s ninety-two counties have shifted to using Vote Centers, which means these counties have fewer polling places, but these polling places are more centrally and conveniently located and have more and better-trained staff. Vote Centers are receiving favorable feedback from both election officials and voters in the counties that have made the shift. Some Porter County residents have encouraged this shift, yet the county’s election decision-makers have yet to embrace this proven voter reform.

Even considering this election’s higher-than-usual voter participation, Porter County could do more to encourage voters to go to the polls. Indiana hovers perennially near the bottom of the list of voter participation in presidential elections. The state came in dead last for voter participation in the 2014 midterms. Leaving so many voters with the feeling that their ballots did not count in this election will hardly help this situation.

Questionable counting leads to broader questions: were these votes secured? (The FBI’s Division of Elections was called in to answer this one.) Is there integrity in the system? Does my vote even matter? For the United States Senate and House of Representatives races, that last question has already been answered with a resounding NO. These two top-of-the-ticket races were called early on election night, as uncounted votes from Porter County languished in ballot boxes.

As much of a problem as this was for voters and poll workers, it is important not to forget the dozens of Porter County candidates who were waiting anxiously for election results. Their future work and routines hinged on these results. Will they be sent to work in the statehouse starting in January or not? Do they have a seat on a board or commission requiring evening meetings? Do they need to hire a babysitter so they can work longer hours? Can they declare victory? Or should they reboot for next time?

Counting matters. Timely results matter. Citizens of the Indiana have a right to be outraged by this miscarriage of democracy.

 

Jennifer Hora is associate professor of political science and international relations at Valparaiso University.

 

Work Cited

Astor, Maggie, and Liam Stack.  “Midterm Election Turnout Was Up. How Much? We Don’t Yet Know.” New York Times, November 9, 2018.

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