I have written this new big piece for Slate. Some snippets:
The November 2020 presidential election won’t be run perfectly—we have never had a perfect election conducted in this country or elsewhere—but the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic add special stress to what was already going to be a difficult election and underline the need to insure that it is run in a way that maximizes both voter access and integrity. Even before the current crisis I had been deeply concerned about the chances of a 2020 “election meltdown,” in which the 47 percent or more of the population on the losing side would not accept the results as legitimate. I am even more worried now because of the changes and shortcuts that will be necessary to successfully run November’s tally amidst a pandemic. Here is what we need to do to minimize the chances of a November meltdown….
The current public health crisis is only likely to increase the strains on voter confidence. In its massive economic aid package that was signed into law on Friday, Congress is providing only $400 million for states to deal with expected increased costs associated with running the election during the outbreak, a woefully inadequate amount given Brennan Center $2 billion estimate for additional needs. Congress rejected Democrats’ attempts to require states to offer a no-excuse vote-by-mail option in November for the one-third of the states that still require voters to offer an excuse to vote from home.
The lack of federal funding may negatively affect voter confidence in a few ways. First, if the pandemic is still limiting our ability to move freely about society in the fall, the amount of absentee balloting is going to explode whether Congress mandates an expansion of absentee balloting or not. We have already seen the huge growth in absentee ballot requests for Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, along with legal challenges surrounding the state’s Voter ID law . Vote-by-mail is an important step in assuring that even if the virus keeps people away from physical polling places, millions of Americans will have a means of avoiding disenfranchisement. But it is not perfect.
Vote-by-mail ballots are more likely to be rejected than other ballots, because of problems like signature mismatches. We also know that rejection rates for signature mismatches can disproportionately affect minority voters. Some states do not alert a voter whose ballot has been rejected about the rejection, failing to give the voter a chance to cure something like a purported signature mismatch. Signature matching is also a notoriously subjective endeavor. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the issue has led to litigation over whether those voters are being unconstitutionally denied their right to vote. Some disabled voters, meanwhile, may need to vote at physical polling places because they lack the physical ability to fill out a ballot at home. These voters too risk disenfranchisement. And in the 11 states without online voter registration, even registering to vote in time for the election may pose a great challenge if government offices are closed or maintaining only limited hours.
Further, some jurisdictions are going to be overwhelmed with the number of absentee ballots to process, whether because of the lack of scanners or workers. There will be stories of notoriously bad election administration in November, because we have some election offices in the country with poor leadership and inadequate resources—problems that will only be exacerbated by the stress of conducting an election under these conditions. Those stories will fit into a “stolen election” narrative, one likely egged on by Russians or others seeking to sow discord and undermine faith in our election. This will be on top of potential virus-related misinformation aimed at particular communities warning them against showing up to vote or telling them to vote at the wrong place or time.
Even worse, the need to process millions more absentee ballots without adequate funds and training means November’s election results could well be delayed. This is especially worrying in Detroit and Philadelphia, because both cities have a history of poor election administration and both of their states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, have recently adopted no excuse absentee balloting—and both states play a critical role in the outcome of the Electoral College that determines the presidency. Delay is going to lead to cries of fraud, when in fact good election administration—especially when dealing with absentee ballots—take time.
What if President Trump is ahead in Michigan and Pennsylvania on election night and he declares victory, but after millions of absentee ballots are processed a week or so later Biden is declared the winner in those states and wins the election? Will Republicans believe Trump if he claimed the later count was the result of fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary?
Meanwhile, when election fraud—as rare as it is—does actually happen in the United States, about a quarter of the time it is because of absentee ballot tampering. In some states it is legal for people to collect an unlimited number of completed absentee ballots from other voters, and that raises the danger not only of fraud but of folks on the wrong side of an election believing that fraud is happening. The kind of fraud that led the North Carolina state elections board to require a do-over of the 2018 race for the state’s ninth congressional district involved the collection and tampering of such absentee ballots. Already we are seeing the usual suspects on the right raise concerns that voter fraud will be rampant with increased vote by mail. Last week, for instance, Republican Rep. Thomas Massie (the same guy who objected to a voice vote on the federal coronavirus bill and made a majority of house members return to Washington. D.C. for a vote) tweeted that “Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it.”