The NCSL Blog


By Eliza Steffen

As of last Tuesday, 40 states have held their primary elections, meaning we are most of the way through primary season—and are fast approaching November’s general election.

Vote letters on Declaration of IndependenceOnly four more state primaries remain in August (Alaska, Wyoming, Florida and Arizona). The last state primary will be New York on Sept. 13, which already held its primary for federal offices on June 26. However, it has been far from smooth sailing for election administrators, who have faced unclear guidelines and tough decisions in the past few months. Unfortunately, November may be more of the same.

During Super Tuesday on June 8, at least half of the eight states holding elections experienced problems ranging from running out of ballots to a broken network connection. Earlier this month, on primary election night, Wayne County, Michigan's election reporting website malfunctioned, at one point showing 80 percent of precincts reporting in some races before dropping back to under 20 percent.

In nearby Oakland County, the 26th precinct ran out of ballots several times due to a higher than expected number of voters. Similarly, in Tennessee it took more than two hours after polls closed for the populous Shelby County for election results to be posted. A combination of old voting machines and a broken website led to the delay, along with a few small mishaps that prolonged the delivery of ballots from precincts to the county board of elections. Just last month, a series of miscommunications in the state's most populous county caused an early voting location to open late, after being court-mandated to open for early voting when the NAACP successfully sued the election commission. Tennessee's NAACP has also written a letter to the Hamilton County board of elections, demanding an explanation for why election officials decided to leave 43 early ballots uncounted.

As if those problems weren’t enough, difficulties loom for primaries that haven't happened yet: More than 2,000 independent voters in Maricopa County, Arizona did not receive the absentee ballot they requested. Additionally, several hundred unaffiliated voters in Pinal County who changed their party registration after the 2016 primaries received the wrong ballot due to an outdated voter registration system. According to county administrators, affected voters can either vote on the ballot they already received, or contact the recorder's office for a new ballot. With Arizona's primaries on Aug. 28, officials have about a week to remedy mistakes before Election Day.    

On top of all those hurdles, election officials have to worry about close races. Though the election administrator's prayer may be, "Lord, let this election not be close,” several recent races have been extremely tight. Last year, the representative for Virginia's 94th district was decided by a coin toss after the one-vote margin became a tie when officials decided a previously questionable ballot would be counted. Since 2013, at least 140 races in Ohio have either been tied or separated by just one vote. In terms of federal races, U.S. Representative Conor Lamb (D) won the March special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district by a slim margin of 755 votes (228,830). This trend continued this month, from Ohio's close special election to a near recount of the Republican gubernatorial primary race in Kansas.

A range of factors can make determining election results difficult for administrators. In at least 13 states, the deadline for absentee ballots to arrive is after Election Day. Additionally, most states allow some period for provisional ballots to be cured, further delaying the certification of results. This can be especially problematic since the public wants immediate results, and rarely understands that election night reports are not final results.

And very small mistakes, which can arise due to misinterpretation or from unclear statutes, can lead to uncounted and missing votes. For instance, in Ohio, several hundred lost ballots in a suburban Worthington precinct narrowed the gap by 190 votes after being discovered two days later. Old equipment, faulty technology and simple human error can all slow the process; a broken printer and a poll worker plugging a voting machine into a dead outlet held up results in Tennessee. A shortage of volunteers and the first year of same-day voter registration caused some confusion at polling locations in Hawaii.

Eliza Steffen is an intern in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.