Investing in Voters’ Last Mile

Doug Jones’ win in Alabama on December 12 was just the latest in a series of strong showings for Democrats in the latter half of 2017. But we shouldn’t let these recent successes in Alabama and in Virginia blind us to the pervasive, fundamental voting problems that still plague this country — and that still can cost Democrats victories in close races that are otherwise within reach. With the 2018 midterm elections coming up, we must take steps now to ensure that voting rights and election administration issues do not thwart Democrats’ chances to regain control of the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, state legislatures and governors’ mansions.

Early reports from the special election in Alabama suggest there was inadequate preparation for long lines and deliberate misinformation distributed in counties with heavy African-American populations. Officials at polling sites across Alabama incorrectly told voters they could not vote because they had been placed on an “inactive” list. Virginia saw confusion at the polls last month, too. In one particularly ignominious instance, an elderly Puerto Rican-born woman was nearly deprived her right to vote in Fairfax County, where election officials wrongly questioned her status as a U.S. citizen and, in turn, her right to cast a ballot.

We know this voter’s story, and many others, only because Democrats in Alabama and Virginia assembled hundreds of “voter protection” lawyers and law students to spend Election Day monitoring the polls. These volunteers were on the case from before dawn until hours after the polls closed, keeping an eye out for active voter suppression efforts; helping dedicated election officials manage long lines; and ensuring that voters having a problem with their registration were, at a minimum, able to cast a provisional ballot, which would become critical in the event of a close election and recount.

Voter protection got its start after 2000, when 537 votes in Florida decided the Presidential election in George W. Bush’s favor. The 2000 election taught us all that getting voters to the polls is not enough: the voter’s experience at the polling place — the “last mile” of voting, from the moment she arrives at the poll until she successfully casts her ballot — can be outcome-determinative. Since 2000, voter protection has slowly grown into a standard component of Democratic presidential and some statewide campaigns.

Yet Democrats have consistently failed to invest adequately in voter protection. Democratic presidential campaigns routinely spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, and tens of millions on field organizing efforts to register voters and drive turnout to the polls. But those campaigns spend a tiny fraction of that to make sure all those turned-out voters are actually able to cast a ballot that gets counted. Midterm and off-year campaigns are even more neglected: the 2018 midterm campaigns are well under way, but not enough is being done to implement robust voter protection programs that can save endangered votes and win close elections.

The Virginia and Alabama Voter Protection teams did a great job with what they had, but each was added to the campaign operation so late in the cycle that they did not have time to organize and solve systemic voting rights problems before they arose. And while this triage-only approach, thanks to the very high caliber of campaign voter protection attorneys, did not cost us a victory in Alabama, the underinvestment in voter protection in Virginia did have consequences in the Commonwealth.

Virginia Democrats, impressively, have picked up 14 seats in the House of Delegates, bringing them within three seats of a majority, but control of that body still hangs in the balance, with four races on their way to recounts. In three of them, the candidates are currently separated by less than 110 votes. The margin in District 94, which covers parts of Newport News and which reportedly had Democratic voter protection volunteers at only two of its 23 polling locations, is currently just 10 votes in favor of the Republican candidate. Voting problems like the kind voter protection volunteers are trained to resolve continue to disproportionately affect voters of color, non-English speakers, voters with disabilities and students. Increased voter protection support increases the likelihood that those voters are able to cast a vote that’s going to count. A more robust Democratic voter protection operation likely could have swung District 94, and similarly impacted the other closest races, winning Democrats control of the House of Delegates. [Update: District 94 was decided by drawing slips of paper from a canister, and tipped the House of Delegates back to the Republicans.]

The good news for Democrats is that some Democratic candidates and party leadership are beginning to recognize the value of investing early in voter protection and are learning how to integrate it into their campaigns. And what is right for our candidates is also what’s right for this country. Putting more time and money toward the last mile of voting will make it more likely that the more than 1 million Americans who tried to vote and couldn’t in 2016 will actually get to cast a ballot in 2018. That means better outcomes for Democrats. It also means we’re taking necessary steps towards safeguarding our democracy, and ensuring that every American — regardless of party — is able to cast a vote that’s going to count.