Long lines and long waits to vote in Fayette County on Tuesday led many to expect record turnout in the midterm election.
But, in the end, turnout was only at 52 percent in Lexington. Higher than usual, but not a record.
So the blame turned back to Fayette County’s electronic voting machines, which take a long time to use, especially with a long and complicated ballot. That means some people who didn’t have an hour or more to wait in line may have left before voting.
“I certainly heard my fair share of people saying the line was too long and they had to leave,” said Debra Hensley, a former Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council member. “A person who cannot vote is an error on our part.”
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It’s a complaint that County Clerk Don Blevins Jr., the county’s chief elections officer, has heard before. And he agrees.
“I can’t stand these machines,” Blevins said Wednesday. “They’re awkward to use, older citizens really struggle with the wheel, the user interface is just about as bad as it could be.”
The machines were bought in 2005 and 2006, when people were still reeling from the “hanging chad” debacle of the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, where Florida’s electoral votes hung on a few, difficult to read paper ballots.
“We were willing to compromise user friendliness for security,” he said. “Now people are more worried about external threats,” such as Russian interference in the 2016 election.
So the pendulum has swung back to the security of a paper ballot. All but about 30 counties in Kentucky use paper ballots, which people fill out, then turn in to be digitally scanned. That means many more people can fill out their ballots at the same time, leading to much shorter lines.
Lexington has about 1,000 Hart eSlate machines, which use a wheel that voters turn to highlight the difference choices on the ballot. Voters then push a button to make the highlighted choice. These machines can be attached to another machine that prints out the completed paper ballot, but Lexington does not use those, so there is no backup record of votes cast in Lexington.
The eSlate machines were once widely used across the United States and Kentucky, said former Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who served on President Barack Obama’s Presidential Commission of Election Administration in 2013, but many places now prefer to have a system that allows both a digital and paper record of votes cast.
Everyone forgets about voting problems until there’s another long ballot with lots of local races, said Grayson.
“If it takes twice as long to vote, that’s like doubling the turnout,” he said.
In a 2017 paper, two Rice University university researched examined Hart’s eSlate devices in the 2016 election.
“There is evidence, both anecdotal and experimental, suggesting that the eSlate is not particularly usable,” the authors wrote. “Counties are already spending a great deal of money on the eSlate and using the systems in elections despite potential usability issues that could lead to longer voter times… and mistakes made by voters while making selections on ballots.”
More recently, early voters in Texas reported that their straight ticket choices were reversed by eSlate machines, although election officials said those mistakes were due to user errors.
Blevins said he’s in favor of replacing Fayette County’s machines, but buying well over 1,000 new machines at a cost of $3 million to $5 million would require money from the the Urban County Government. The county, though, does have about $1 million in federal Help America Vote Act money in an account with the Kentucky Secretary of State that could help.
“We could offset the cost, but it’s kind of an all or nothing deal,” Blevins said. “You don’t want half the county on paper ballots and half not.”
With paper ballot machines, county clerks can choose two different modes: They can pre-print paper ballots, which voters fill out, then scan into the scanner, creating a digital version, Blevins said. This version, used in Jefferson County, allows many more voters to fill out ballots at the same time.
A more time-consuming option allows voters to fill out an electronic ballot on a machine, which then prints out a paper copy, again creating a digital and paper copy.
“With paper ballots already printed, you can have multiple ballots going at the same time,” Blevins said.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay said if Blevins requests money for new or different voting machines, the Urban County Council will consider the issue.
“I think we will want to look at it,” Kay said. “There are questions about the reliability of all those electronic voting machines.”
A September 2016 report by the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, a cybersecurity think tank, detailed several potential security flaws with the eSlate voting machine that create the potential for hacking or manipulation.
“We have to be careful about what we do and how we do it,” Kay said.
There’s also the issue of money.
After several years of growth the city’s tax revenue has leveled off, even as costs continue to climb. Still, Kay said he doesn’t want long wait times to deter people from coming to the polls on Election Day.
“More generally, we want to make voting as easy as possible,” he said.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said she wants Fayette and the 29 other Kentucky counties using electronic voting machines, mostly in Eastern Kentucky, to upgrade their machines. The state recently received $6 million in federal funds to help counties buy new machines.
“It’s really required for public demand, to ease long lines and to ensure integrity of voting,” she said.
Another way to vote
Many election experts also see another way to relieve long wait times on Election Day: early voting.
Kentucky is one of the most restrictive states in the country for casting a ballot before Election Day. It’s one of only 13 states without early voting and only allows absentee voting with permitted excuses, such as disability or illness, military or being temporarily out of the state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Kentuckians should be able to file an absentee ballot without an excuse, Grimes said.
“It’s past time,” she said. “Trying to request four hours leave is not conducive to people being part of this democracy. We’re not giving them a fighting chance to be part of this process.”
So far, the Republican-led state Senate has refused to take up the issue.
“Kentucky’s current system of absentee voting is just right,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. “I’m opposed to wholesale changes including early voting, which can lead to voter fraud and other problems. Campaigns are meant to peak on Election Day, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that citizens do their civic duty and make time to vote on primary and general election days.”
Grayson, the former Republican secretary of state, doesn’t see it that way.
“Many Republicans believe early voting favors Democrats, but I don’t see that,” he said. “Tennessee has it and it’s more Republican than we are.”
State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, filed a bill last year to allow voting on the three Saturdays before every election at the county clerk’s office. The bill failed, but he said he will file it again when the legislative session starts in January.
One day of voting between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. is not enough time for many families with children and jobs, he said.
“We need to always encourage people to vote,” he said. “That’s the heart of our democracy.”