The Unforeseen Threats to the 2020 Election: Hand Sanitizer and Bad Plumbing


Poll workers in Derry, N.H., learned the hard way earlier this year that hand sanitizer and paper ballots do not mix. So on Election Day, they carefully repositioned the gallon tubs of sanitizer from the entrance of their polling place to the exit, hoping to keep voters from gunking up their ballots.

But their effort could not stop the woman who brought her own bottle of hand sanitizer and applied a heavy lather as she voted, dampening the paper so much that the AccuVote ballot reader refused to accept it. When the soggy ballot was finally yanked out of the jammed contraption, there was no mistaking what had happened: Everyone could see the voter’s wet handprint on the paper.

“I don’t know what it is about hand sanitizer, maybe it’s the alcoholic content, but if you ever tried to pour hand sanitizer on nicer paper, it almost — I don’t want to say it disintegrates, but it makes it weaker,” said Tina Guilford, the top election official in Derry, who has come to learn how to process those accidentally sanitized ballots.

In a year when interference by foreign governments, armed protesters and voter suppression were considered the main threats at the polls, some Election Day holdups were the result of everyday municipal malfunctions.

Those setbacks highlight the decentralized nature of national elections, which rely on hundreds of thousands of everyday people to work the polls. And they bring attention to what some advocates have been urging for years: the need for better basic infrastructure in some voting locations, including new polling places to reduce crowding and improved systems to register online or vote by mail.

Lawrence Norden, the director of the election reform program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said election officials seemed better prepared this year, in part because of the microscope the coronavirus pandemic and fears of meddling placed over the 2020 election. Congress also sent $400 million to the states as part of the economic stimulus bill signed by President Trump in March to help them make adjustments for safe elections, although some Democrats said at the time that more money was needed.

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“There’s no question that our election infrastructure is chronically underfunded,” Mr. Norden said, although he noted that more money, private and public, had flowed to election planning in recent years.

In the 2018 midterm elections, voters cast ballots at about 230,871 polling places, where more than 637,000 poll workers — two-thirds of whom were older than 60 — signed them in, guided them to their ballots and counted their votes. That patchwork of election districts and poll workers makes mishaps impossible to avoid, experts said, but can also keep an incident at one polling place from affecting a broader region.

“The fact that we do fundamentally run elections by volunteer citizens in their local communities, that keeps a minor or even a major problem happening in one place from bringing down our democracy,” said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the New Mexico secretary of state and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

This week saw a variety of such small-scale interruptions. In Atlanta, the culprit was leaky plumbing. Inside the arena where the Atlanta Hawks play basketball — converted into a polling place — the early-morning discovery that a burst pipe was leaking water into a room with absentee ballots delayed the count by a couple of hours. An arena staff member quickly fixed the leak, and none of the ballots were damaged, officials said.

Several polling places in Louisiana were running on generators after lingering power failures caused by Hurricane Zeta, which led to a feud between local and state officials over who was responsible for sending the generators to election sites. Officials ultimately moved two polling locations to a nearby middle school, and there were no serious delays.

In Hidalgo County in South Texas, just across the border from Mexico, it was a technical glitch. New laptops that had been distributed to polling sites ahead of Election Day to help accommodate the region’s record-breaking turnout did not work, causing delays of up to 90 minutes on Tuesday morning.

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“They were not allowing the software program to open up to check in voters,”Yvonne Ramon, the county elections administrator, said. “And because they were scattered throughout the county, my field service technicians took off to the nearest locations. We’re a large county, so going from location to location is not an easy thing.”

Ms. Ramon noted that hiccups with new technology were not unusual. But the county kept polling places open an additional hour on Tuesday night to make up for the earlier delays, and everyone who had come out to cast a ballot was ultimately able to do so, she said.

In the battleground state of Wisconsin, the last few hundred votes went unreported for several hours because the Richland County clerk could not reach the clerk in the town of Willow, who had said she felt sick and then could not be reached, according to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Willow’s 274 votes were eventually reported. In Green Bay, the count of absentee votes was briefly delayed while an election official ran over to City Hall to get more ink for the vote-counting machines.

Poll workers face unexpected glitches every year, but warnings about distorted tallies or delayed counts made voters and observers more on edge than usual about any oddities. None of the complications this week led to serious problems, elections officials said. Some, like the hand sanitizer incident, were the result of an election severely altered by coronavirus precautions.

Until this year, “Hand sanitizer was never a thing at a polling place,” said Ms. Guilford, the official in Derry, where just over 18,000 people voted. The ballot that jammed the machine was ultimately hand counted, and the ballot reader was taken out of service, she said.

Hand sanitizer had tripped up other ballot machines in New Hampshire earlier this year, and on Tuesday in Iowa, requiring one of the machines to be fixed.

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Daniel Healey, the town clerk in Derry, said election officials had done what they could to keep it from happening again, but that they could not stop everything.

“There was way less hand sanitizer this time,” he said, but some people brought their own. “There’s no way to stop it entirely.”

Caitlin Dickerson contributed reporting.


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