Will your vote count?

That is the looming question in the minds of a growing number of people as the highly-contentious Nov. 3 elections approach.

Both the political left and political right have ginned up their rhetoric in a bid to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the elections. The result is that an increasing number of voters are questioning one of America's most fundamental blocks of democracy — the integrity of the ballot box.

Democracy isn't a real democracy if voting isn't honest or accessible. And no democracy can survive if the outcome of elections have a cloud of doubt over them, even if that cloud is created more from political rhetoric than reality.

Today's political rhetoric is damaging our electoral system in ways that could bring our nation to its knees. Nothing motivates a country to embrace autocracy more than the fear that voting is just a shell game.

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If we step back and take a look at the big picture, there is more honesty and access in today's voting than there was 50 or 100 years ago. Women only got the right to vote in 1920. Most Blacks were not allowed to vote until after the 1965 voting rights act. Even then, it took a lot of court action to ensure everyone could vote.

For the most part over the last 40 years, we've taken the right to vote — and the honesty of the outcome — for granted.

That began to change in 2000 with the Bush v. Gore presidential election which was ultimately decided by the courts. The results in several Florida counties were in doubt and a recount took place.

In the end, Bush won, but there have been lingering doubts about how that election was handled. Part of the issue was technology and the design of the ballots. Another part was the impartiality — or lack thereof — of those in Florida overseeing the voting process.

Questions about technology continue today, but that's just one part of the larger issue. Propaganda and electronic intrusions by foreign countries, especially Russia, have muddied the waters even more.

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But an even bigger problem is the extreme partisanship coming from both the left and right. Everyone is attempting to game the voting system to their advantage.

In 2016, Republican Donald Trump lost the popular vote by around 5 million, but claimed that he really won the popular vote and that millions of illegal votes were cast for his opponent. That wasn't true, but it ramped up the idea that the American voting system was rife with illegal voting. That narrative continues to be promoted by Trump and many Republicans.

In 2018, here in Georgia, Democrat Stacy Abrams lost the race for governor, but essentially refused to concede and blamed the outcome on voter suppression by Republicans who currently control the levers of state government. Her inability to graciously concede defeat and instead attack the system of voting brought further damage to the integrity of the ballot box.

Those are two very different views of our electoral system, but they bookend the polarized view in the country. And both are damaging to our electoral system.

Many Republicans tend to believe there's a lot of illegal voting and that access to voting needs to be tightened. 

Many Democrats believe Republicans are attempting to suppress voting in minority communities that tend to vote mostly Democratic.  

There may be a seed of truth in both views, but the distorted rhetorical elevation of those allegations is damaging in ways neither party appears to care about.

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All of that controversy was bubbling in a hot political cauldron when the COVID virus hit and made a mess of everything, including elections.

Because of COVID, a strong push was made in the spring to have more people vote by absentee ballots than by in-person voting. The idea was to keep the spread of the virus down by not having long lines of people show up at the polls. Election dates were also postponed to deal with the crisis.

For a while, that move was bipartisan. Georgia's Republican leaders sent absentee ballot request forms to all voters in the state, a move that made it easier for all registered voters to get an absentee ballot.

But the fallout of that had some unexpected consequences, especially here in Georgia.

Although the state promoted absentee voting, it was ill-prepared to handle it. That's because simultaneous to all of this, Georgia was implementing a completely new electronic voting system. Everything was different and local county election offices had to figure out the new system, do additional training and find poll workers during the middle of a pandemic.

The result was no small amount of chaos. That came from several problems:

• Many counties, including Jackson, hadn't been allocated enough absentee ballot scanners from the state to handle the huge uptick in absentee voting. That slowed down the counting of ballots on election night.

• The new absentee ballots turned out to more sensitive to voter use than expected. If a ballot wasn't filled in correctly, the scanning machine would reject it. Some voters didn't bother to read the instructions and filled out their ballot incorrectly by putting an X or a check mark rather than filling out the bubble with a pencil. In addition, stray marks, coffee stains, tears and folds would cause a ballot to be rejected by the machine. All of those ballots had to be reviewed by a special committee in each county to figure out what to do and to recreated the ballot with a new one if the voter's intent was clear.

• A number of voters asked for an absentee ballot, but then showed up at the polls to vote in-person anyway. That created a lot of confusion, especially in large metro counties. Poll workers are supposed to check each voter at check-in to make sure they hadn't already received an absentee ballot. If they had, the poll worker had to call the county elections office to have the absentee ballot cancelled so the person could vote in-person. That system worked in Jackson County, but was a mess in some other counties which weren't prepared with enough staffing to handle all the cancelations. It was because of that situation the secretary of state's office recently alleged that around 1,000 Georgias had voted twice during the June balloting. (The details of that aren't yet clear and it may turn out to be a technical, not criminal problem.)

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In addition to all of that confusion, there are two other problems to deal with for the upcoming November election.

First, the president and some Republicans have made a rhetorical assault on absentee voting, claiming that it's open to fraud and that Democrats wanted to have a rigged, fraudulent election.

But the president muddied the water even more by telling supporters at a recent campaign rally to vote twice, once by absentee ballot and then again in person. In other words, the president was encouraging the fraud he accused Democrats of fomenting.

But it gets even more odd. Last week, my wife and I got mailers from the Trump campaign that contained an application for an absentee ballot and said in big, bold letters: "President Trump wants you to return this form!"

The Trump campaign is promoting absentee voting even as it claims such voting is bad.

The result is that Americans are more confused than ever about the absentee voting process and it's legitimacy.

The second problem looming for November are a slew of lawsuits and technical issues that could define both the election parameters the election outcome.

A federal judge has already ruled that absentee ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 have to be accepted up to three days later, a move that overturns established state law and could delay the outcome of the Nov. 3 voting for several days.

On the technical side,  problems within the USPS and the return of absentee ballots is in doubt. Some believe the USPS has been politicized as an agency for Trump to disrupt the election by cutting service to slow the return of absentee ballots, especially in Democratic areas.

And then there are changes being made here in Georgia with the recalibrating of the absentee ballot scanners that the state elections board recently made. Exactly how that will affect the election isn't yet clear.

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Although Georgia has become the national poster child for election problems this year, that black eye isn't true in every county.

While the state and courts have an impact on elections, it's local officials who decide how the rubber meets the road. And the truth is, some county elections offices are better managed than others. The problems in June in some metro Atlanta counties weren't new — some of those counties always have problems either because they're so large, or because they're mismanaged.

Jackson County has a well-run elections office, but it could face some problems in the future if county officials don't quickly give it more resources.

That office needs more help; it is understaffed for both the election season and to handle the complexities of the new state-mandated voting system.

And that office needs more space. The current offices in the Gordon Street Center are too small to house the large amount of equipment and people needed to work there.

The elections office may need a new home, given the space constraints at the Gordon Street Center. The county has the money for that, but is currently focused on other priorities. 

It's difficult to imagine anything more important than voting.

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I'm not really worried about my vote not counting in November. I have faith in the local election system and its officials.

I will vote by absentee, in part because I want to avoid large crowds in confined spaces and the virus, and in part because I hate standing in line. I'm too impatient.

Ultimately, is up to me as a citizen to vote and to figure out the system for doing that.

Republicans are right that there should be some degree of voting security. There's nothing wrong with requiring some kind of identification to cast a ballot.

But Democrats are right that those things shouldn't be complicated or burdensome to the voter. Voting should be easy for everyone.

And yet, both political parties are destroying our electoral system with their false claims and overheated rhetoric. 

Hopefully, Americans will tune all that out and go vote anyway.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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