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This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

More in-person voting sites in metro areas. Better information about where polls have been relocated. More public education about how to vote from home and what to do if an absentee ballot doesn't arrive—or arrives at the last minute. And no last-minute government decisions that confuse voters and undermine voting, such as imposing curfews before the polls close.

These are some of the takeaways from the nine presidential primaries that took place on June 2, the largest day of voting across America since the pandemic broke in mid-March, where most of the states and the District of Columbia responded by shifting to voting with mailed-out ballots rather than voting centered on local polling places as in previous elections.


The approaches taken in these states and districts varied and reflected the trends seen across the United States. Montana and Maryland mailed ballots to voters. Washington, D.C., and four states sent voters applications to get a mail-in ballot. Pennsylvania and Indiana left it up to voters to apply for an absentee ballot, get the ballots on time, and submit it on time to be counted.

The results were a spectrum of well-run to more-problematic elections. Montana, which is used to voting by mail, had higher turnout than its 2018 fall midterm. But many voters who were not used to voting from home, especially in metro areas, did not get ballots as expected. They went to vote in person, but often found traditional polling places closed. They ended up in long lines and sometimes faced hours-long waits, where social distancing could be challenging, and, in the worst case—in Washington—police were telling voters to go home because of a curfew.

These trends, both better and worse, offer lessons and warning signs for the fall elections.

"Overall, this is a dry run for November," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which runs the nation's largest Election Day hotline and fielded more than 5,000 calls for the primaries. "We're bracing for high turnout that we will see in the November general election, and lessons learned from this primary season must guide states… to ensure that every eligible voter can have their voice heard."

"It is clear that the pandemic is having an impact on virtually every aspect of the voting experience," she said, noting that impact was apart from a curfew in Washington that was announced by a text alert on Election Day that "did not have an exception making it clear that voters can, indeed, continue to travel to cast their ballot."

Voting in quasi-militarized settings was not confined to the nation's capital. In Philadelphia, on election eve, the mayor announced a curfew that was slated to take effect an hour before its polls closed, but subsequently delayed it after an outcry by other city officials and activists. The curfews, which have never before occurred on an Election Day in recent times, were a response to looting that occurred after generally peaceful protests against police violence and racism. However, the curfews also come in a climate where the Republican Party, led by President Trump, has been repeatedly making false claims that voting by mail is rife with fraud.

"This is simply not true," wrote the National Vote at Home Institute's Amber McReynolds and MIT's Charles Stewart III, both experts, for The Hill. They noted that the right-wing Heritage Foundation's oft-cited election fraud database listed 204 cases and 143 convictions using mailed ballots in the past 20 years, where "about 250 million votes have been cast by a mail ballot." That activity level is "about five times less likely than getting hit by lightning in the United States."

But while partisan propaganda about voting by mail is only likely to increase as the general election nears, the nuts-and-bolts challenges of shifting to voting by mail in states that have not widely instituted that process is very much a work in progress. In that sense, the statewide and district primaries on June 2, as well as dozens of elections that will be held now through the summer, are microcosms of what is working and what needs to be fixed for the fall.

A Spectrum of States

The June 2 primaries featured jurisdictions with more and less experience running mail-based elections. On the most experienced side, Montana, where the senior statewide election official is a Republican, continued its practice of mailing all voters a ballot. More people voted for its 2020 primary than during the state's November 2018 midterms.

"Sixty-three percent of active registered voters," said Phil Keisling, the National Vote at Home Institute's board chair and former Oregon secretary of state. "That's higher than 41 states in their midterms in 2018. That's the power of mailing everyone a ballot."

While Montana was an example of how voter turnout will increase in states where voters have become used to voting from home, the experience in Midwestern and Eastern states that have not embraced voting from home until the pandemic was rockier was a different story—and not just because of the pandemic's social distancing requirements or police presence due to widespread protests.

In Pennsylvania's largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in Washington, D.C., in Baltimore, Maryland, and in Indianapolis, Indiana, election officials underestimated the number of people who sought to vote in person for any number of reasons: from not getting a mail-in ballot; to getting a ballot late and wanting to drop it off; to simply wanting to vote in a polling place.

While Pennsylvania's top officials reported a "smooth election amid historic circumstances" as 1.8 million residents applied for an absentee ballot, "17 times greater than the number who applied" in its 2016 presidential primary, voting rights advocates manning election-protection hotlines observed a different experience. The Lawyers' Committee said that 55 percent of the calls received on June 2 were from Pennsylvania—and from people unable to vote by mail.

Half of the hotline calls concerned finding a polling place, the Committee's Lacy Crawford said. Another 17 percent concerned ballots—meaning unfamiliarity with mailed-out ballots versus polling place voting. Another 13 percent concerned voter registration. Of slightly less than half of the callers who reported their race, 63 percent were Black, 21 percent were white and 12 percent were Latino.

The takeaway from the committee briefings, where its partners summarized what they were hearing from hundreds of observers, underscored that accommodating the fall's voters will mean planning for high levels of voting from home—but still significant in-person voting at precincts. That conclusion is what emerges after hearing detailed reports of snafus.

"The big theme of the day is confusion," said Ivan Garcia, civic engagement director for MakeTheRoadPA.org. "Voters are turning up to their old polling place and not always finding directions to the consolidated poll place that they should be going to. Because of the large number of voters at each poll, poll workers are having trouble finding voters in the poll books—if they even have the poll books. In the worst situations, they are being turned down and turned away so that they cannot vote."

Garcia also said that many voters had not received a mail-in ballot—even though they said they had applied. When they turned up at vote centers, some poll workers were unfamiliar with the procedures to let them vote. (In some states, poll workers can look up that voter in an electronic poll book and cancel their mail-in ballot, allowing them to vote with a regular ballot. In other states, they must fill out a form to get a provisional ballot.)

"We are seeing voters who requested mail-in ballots who never received them," he said. "They are turning out to their polling place to vote. And instead of voting provisionally, which is what is supposed to happen, they are being turned away as well. There have been lots of phone calls asking about the clarification about the deadlines for returning mail ballots based on the executive order that Gov. [Tom] Wolf signed yesterday [June 1]. The length of the lines is increasing as we get to the end of the day. There's been problems in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia."

In Indianapolis, election officials also underestimated the number of in-person voters.

"One thing we learned from our colleagues in Indiana is that even in these challenging circumstances in the Midwest and nationally, voters have really shown a quiet resolve to persevere and to exercise their right to vote today," said Ami Gandhi, with the committee's Chicago chapter, which was assisted by Common Cause in Indiana. "The majority of calls we received so far are people needing clarification on where their polling place is… Some voters, especially in Indianapolis, have been facing long lines and congestion… We're also getting many questions about absentee ballots by voters not comfortable with voting in person."

These comments reflect that some voters, in response to the pandemic, clearly want to vote from home—one trend that is likely to continue into the fall's general election. Yet, at the same time, the comments also reflect that many voters who did not get an absentee ballot, for any number of reasons, still wanted to find a way to vote in person. (This was apart from police in some locations, namely Washington, telling voters to leave because of a pending curfew.)

Printing Errors And Other Problems

The June 2 experience had other lessons. In Pennsylvania, where state law does not allow local election officials to start processing mail-in ballots before Election Day and the governor's order will allow ballots postmarked by June 2 to arrive up to a week later and still be counted, the official results in some contests will not be known for days—which will recur this fall. It's not known whether the state's legislature will act to allow counting to start earlier in the fall.

In Baltimore, where a contractor for the city delivered paper ballots to one district that were not properly printed, that caused a series of cascading problems that will take days to unwind—from voters casting ballots that will not count, to reconciling votes and declaring official outcomes in city races.

That printing error is a warning sign for states or counties that anticipate printing unprecedented volumes of paper ballots in the fall. However, because Maryland is a state offering same-day voter registration, most issues affecting voters could be solved on Election Day at in-person voting sites.

In Washington, one reaction to not getting ballots into voters' hands was to email voters the ballot—to be printed at their home and then submitted. That response was quickly criticized by cybersecurity advocates, saying it offered a hacking pathway (even though some states have been sending ballots this way to soldiers stationed overseas).

In Philadelphia, there were also reports that the city was ignoring social distancing standards by cramming their new voting machines (one per jurisdiction) into multi-precinct voting locations, which forced voters and poll workers to stand on top of each other. There also were reports from other counties that election officials did not put ballot drop boxes in visible locations.

Stepping back, however, it appeared that apart from Montana's 63 percent record turnout, a quarter to a third of the registered voters in states that were expanding at-home voting for the first time ended up casting mail-in ballots on June 2, according to the National Vote at Home Institute's Keisling.

"If we knew how many mailed-out ballots went out, you could apply an 80 percent rule—if 100,000 go out, 80,000 will come back," he said, adding that not every state will post this information. "It varies a bit, but that's the general rule, plus or minus 5 percent… All you need to do is look at the total votes [cast] and what's the difference [subtracting that mail-in ballot estimate]. Those [remaining voters] are the people who showed up at a polling place."

In other words, looking to the fall, record numbers of voters will be casting mail-in ballots. But sizable numbers of voters will still be looking to vote in person. Election officials will have to adequately prepare for both voting options.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Think of it as a war system that's been coming home for years. The murder of George Floyd has finally shone a spotlight on the need to defund local police departments and find alternatives that provide more genuine safety and security. The same sort of spotlight needs soon to be shone on the American military machine and the wildly well-funded damage it's been doing for almost 19 years across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

Distorted funding priorities aren't the only driving force behind police violence against communities of color, but shifting such resources away from policing and to areas like jobs, education, housing, and restorative justice could be an important part of the solution. And any effort to boost spending on social programs should include massive cuts to the Pentagon's bloated budget. In short, it's time to defund our wars, both at home and abroad.


In most states and localities, spending on police and prisons outweighs what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once described as "programs of social uplift." The numbers are staggering. In some jurisdictions, police alone can account for up to 40 percent of local budgets, leaving little room for other priorities. In New York City, for instance, funding the police department's operations and compensation costs more than $10 billion yearly -- more, that is, than the federal government spends on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, more than $100 billion annually goes into policing.

Now, add to that another figure: what it costs to hold roughly two million (yes 2,000,000!) Americans in prisons and jails -- roughly $120 billion a year. Like policing, in other words, incarceration is big business in this country in 2020. After all, prison populations have grown by nearly 700 percent since 1972, driven in significant part by the "war on drugs," a so-called war that has disproportionately targeted people of color.

The Elephant in the Room: Pentagon Spending
In addition to the police and prisons, the other major source of American militarized spending is, of course, the Pentagon. That department, along with related activities like nuclear weapons funding at the Department of Energy, now gobbles up at least $750 billion per year. That's more than the military budgets of the next 10 countries combined.

Just as prisons and policing consume a startling proportion of state and local budgets, the Pentagon accounts for more than half of the federal government's discretionary budget and that includes most government functions other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As Ashik Siddique of the National Priorities Project has noted, the Trump administration's latest budget proposal "prioritizes brute force and militarization over diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to pressing societal crises" in a particularly striking way. "Just about every non-militarized department funded by the discretionary budget," he adds, "is on the chopping block, including all those that focus on reducing poverty and meeting human needs like education, housing, labor, health, energy, and transportation."

Spending on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the deportation of immigrants through agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Customs and Border Protection totals another $24 billion annually. That puts U.S. spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon at nearly $1 trillion per year and that doesn't even include the soaring budgets of other parts of the American national security state like the Department of Homeland Security ($92 billion) and the Veterans Administration ($243 billion -- a cost of past wars). Back in May 2019, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight and I had already estimated that the full national security budget, including the Pentagon, was approximately $1.25 trillion a year and that estimate, of course, didn't even include the police and the prison system!

Another way of looking at the problem is to focus on just how much of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and other militarized activities, including federal prisons, immigration enforcement, and veterans benefits. An analysis by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies puts this figure at $887 billion, or more than 64 percent of the federal discretionary budget including public health, education, environmental protection, job training, energy development, housing, transportation, scientific research, and more.

Making the Connection: The 1033 Program
Ever since images of the police deploying armored vehicles against peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, hit the national airwaves in 2014, the Pentagon's program for supplying "surplus" military equipment to local police departments has been a news item. It's also gotten intermittent attention in Congress and the Executive Branch.

Since 1997, the Pentagon's 1033 Program, as it's called, has channeled to 8,000 separate law enforcement agencies more than $7.4 billion in surplus equipment, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles of the kind used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers, and night-vision devices. As Brian Barrett has pointed out at Wired, "Local law enforcement responding to even nonviolent protests has often looked more like the U.S. Armed Forces." Political scientist Ryan Welch co-authored a 2017 study suggesting, when it came to police departments equipped in such a fashion, "that officers with military hardware and mindsets will resort to violence more often and more quickly."

Under the circumstances and given who's providing the equipment, you won't be surprised to learn that the 1033 program also suffers from lax oversight. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) created a fake law enforcement agency and was able to acquire $1.2 million worth of equipment through the program, including night-vision goggles and simulated M-16A2 rifles. The request was approved within a week of the GAO's application.

The Obama administration finally implemented some reforms in the wake of Ferguson, banning the transfer of tracked vehicles, grenade launchers, and weaponized aircraft, among other things, while requiring police departments to supply more detailed rationales describing their need for specific equipment. But such modest efforts -- and they proved modest indeed – were promptly chucked out when Donald Trump took office. And the Trump administration changes quickly had a discernible effect. In 2019, the 1033 program had one of its biggest years ever, with about 15,750 military items transferred to law enforcement, a figure exceeded only in 2012, in the Obama years, when 17,000 such items were distributed.

As noted, the mere possession of military equipment has been shown to stoke the ever stronger "warrior culture" that now characterizes so many police departments, as evidenced by the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams armed with military weaponry for routine drug enforcement activities. It's hardly just SWAT teams, though. The weaponry and related items provided under the 1033 program are widely employed by ordinary police forces. NBC News, for instance, reported that armored vehicles were used at least 29 times in response to Black Lives Matter protests organized since the murder of George Floyd, including in major urban areas like Philadelphia and Cincinnati. NBC has also determined that more than 1,100 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies under the MRAP program, going to communities large and small, including Sanford, Maine, population 20,000, and Moundsville, West Virginia, population 8,400.

A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has similarly documented the use of Pentagon-supplied equipment in no-knock home invasions, including driving up to people's houses in just such armored vehicles to launch the raids. The ACLU concluded that "the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers]."

Who Benefits?
Companies in the military-industrial complex earn billions of dollars selling weapons, as well as building and operating prisons and detention facilities, and supplying the police, while theoretically dealing with problems with deep social and economic roots. Generally speaking, by the time they're done, those problems have only become deeper and more rooted. Take, for example, giant weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon that profit so splendidly from the sales of weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, weaponry that, in turn, has been used to kill tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, destroy civilian infrastructure there, and block the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance. The result: more than 100,000 deaths in that country and millions more on the brink of famine and disease, including Covid-19.

Such major weapons firms have also been at the front of the line when it comes to benefiting from America's endless post-9/11 wars. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States has spent over $6.4 trillion on just some of those overseas conflicts since 2001. Hundreds of billions of those dollars ended up in the pockets of defense contractors, while problems in the U.S., left far less well funded, only grew.

And by the way, the Pentagon's regular budget, combined with direct spending on wars, also manages to provide huge benefits to such weapons makers. Almost half of the department's $750 billion budget goes to them. According to the Federal Procurement Data System's latest report on the top recipients of government contracts, the five largest U.S. arms makers alone -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics -- split well over $100 billion in Pentagon awards among them in 2019. Meanwhile, those same five firms pay their CEOs a total of approximately $100 million per year, with hundreds of millions more going to other top executives and board members.

Meanwhile, in the Trump years, the militarization of the border has become a particularly lucrative business opportunity, with General Atomics, for instance, supplying ever more surveillance drones and General Dynamics supplying an ever more intricate and expensive remote sensor surveillance system. There are also millions to be made running privatized prisons and immigrant detention centers, filling the coffers of firms like CoreCivic and the GEO Group, which have secured record profits in recent years while garnering about half their revenues from those two sources.

Last but not least is the market for even more police equipment. Local forces benefit from grants from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a wide range of items to supplement the Pentagon's 1033 program.

The True Bottom Line
Much has been written about America's failed post-9/11 wars, which have cost trillions of dollars in taxpayer treasure, hundreds of thousands of lives (American and otherwise), and physical and psychological injuries to hundreds of thousands more. They have also propped up sectarian and corrupt regimes that have actually made it easier for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to form and spread. Think of it as the ultimate boomerang effect, in which violence begets more violence, while allowing overseas terrorist organizations to thrive. As journalist Nick Turse has noted with respect to the militarization of U.S. Africa policy, the growth in American military operations on that continent has proceeded rather strikingly in conjunction with a proliferation of new terrorist groups. Put the best light on them and U.S. counterterror operations there have been ineffective. More likely, they have simply helped spawn further increases in terrorist activities in the region.

All of this has, in turn, been an ongoing disaster for underfunded domestic programs that would actually help ordinary Americans rather than squander their tax dollars on what passes for, but obviously isn't, "national defense." In the era of Covid-19, climate change, and an increased focus on longstanding structural racism and anti-black violence, a new approach to "security" is desperately needed, one that privileges not yet more bombs, guns, militarized police forces, and aircraft carriers but public health, environmental protection, and much-needed programs for quality jobs and education in underserved communities.

On the domestic front, particularly in communities of color, police are more often seen as an occupying force than a source of protection (and ever since the 1033 program was initiated, they've looked ever more like such a force as well). This has led to calls for defunding the police and seeking other means of providing public safety, including, minimally, not sending police to deal with petty drug offenses, domestic disputes, and problems caused by individuals with mental-health issues. Organizations like the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block have put forward proposals for crisis response by institutions other than the police and for community-based programs for resolving disputes and promoting restorative justice.

Shifting Priorities
Sharp reductions in spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon could free up hundreds of billions of dollars for programs that might begin to fill the gap in spending on public investments in communities of color and elsewhere.

Organizations like the Movement for Black Lives and the Poor People's Campaign are already demanding these kinds of changes. In its moral budget, a comprehensive proposal for redirecting America's resources toward addressing poverty and away from war, racism, and ecological destruction, the Poor People's Campaign calls for a $350 billion annual cut in Pentagon spending -- almost half of current levels. Likewise, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives suggested a 50 percent reduction in Pentagon outlays. And a new youth anti-militarist movement, Dissenters, has called for defunding the armed forces as well as the police.

Ultimately, safety for all Americans will depend on more than just a shift of funding or a reduction in police armaments. After all, George Floyd and Eric Garner -- just two of the long list of black Americans to die at the hands of the police -- were killed not with high-tech weapons, but with a knee to the throat and a fatal chokehold. Shifting funds from the police to social services, dismantling police forces as they now exist, and creating new institutions to protect communities should be an essential part of any solution in the aftermath of Donald Trump's presidency. Similarly, investments in diplomacy, economic assistance, and cultural exchange would be needed in order to help rein in the American war machine which, of course, has been attended to in ways nothing else, from health care to schooling to infrastructure, has been in this century. When it comes to both the police and the Pentagon, the sooner change arrives the better off we'll all be. It's long past time to defund America's wars, both abroad and at home.


William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Copyright 2020 William D. Hartung