I’ve published closing reflections on where we are now, compared to the enormous concerns we had over the spring and summer, with running an election amidst the virus. The essay, entitled Amid Voting Fights, a Huge Expansion, is the WSJ’s Weekend Review section. Here are some excerpts:
Many Americans are worried that their votes won’t be counted in this election. . . . Nearly every day another 11th-hour decision comes down, including from the Supreme Court.
What’s missing in this focus on court rulings is the bigger picture of how dramatically the voting system has changed for 2020. These changes, mostly made by state governments rather than the courts, have enabled widespread access to political participation, even amid the exceptional stresses of the pandemic.
Despite all the election-related anxieties of spring and summer, we are likely to see the highest turnout in more than a century—65% of eligible voters, meaning 150 million votes—according to the latest forecast from the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. A week before Election Day, early voting had already surpassed its 2016 level. The reason is that highly mobilized voters have been able to take advantage of several major policy changes.
Once the pandemic hit, the most important issue was whether voters would have the option of easily voting by mail. In particular, would states that normally permit absentee voting only for a narrow set of reasons, such as being away, relax those restrictions? Several months ago, it appeared this might be a vigorously contested question, but it hasn’t turned out that way in most state legislatures….
The breadth of this shift has been obscured by attacks on “universal” mail-in voting, particularly from the White House. But that option was never a major factor in what states contemplated for this fall. Absentee voting requires a voter to ask for a ballot to be sent to their address. With universal mail-in voting, the state sends out ballots to everyone on the voter rolls. That system takes longer to implement smoothly, largely because of the need to update voter rolls to avoid widespread mistakes. Only four states—California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont—adopted universal vote-by-mail for this election, along with most counties in Montana….
A second major change has been the expansion of early in-person voting, which avoids several pitfalls of absentee ballots, such as higher rejection rates, postal delays and the possibility of drawn-out counting for late-arriving votes. Because some voters only trust voting in person, fear of the virus might have been a major deterrent to in-person voting if Election Day were the only opportunity to go directly to the polls.
But this fall, 42 states are providing significant periods of early voting, including several states that expanded their early-voting options. Texas, one of the states that does not permit no-excuse absentee voting, is a particularly interesting example. It has featured in many of this year’s courtroom dramas, with voting-rights plaintiffs losing most of those cases. Less noticed was Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to expand early voting by nearly a week, over the objections (and unsuccessful litigation) of the state GOP. Texans now have 2½ weeks of early voting, and they are making massive use of this option. Five days before Election Day, turnout in Texas had already surpassed 95% of total 2016 turnout. Nearly 90% of those votes came from early in-person voting, according to the U.S. Elections Project….
Yet another worry was the prospect of polling place closures. With cases of Covid-19 spiking again, that could still turn into a last-minute issue. But just toting up the number of available polling places can be misleading. In some places, smaller sites have been replaced with much larger, more efficient vote centers that enable social distancing and require fewer poll workers per voter. In Kentucky’s June primary, for example, the city of Louisville (pop. 625,000) had only one polling site. But that site was the enormous Expo Center, and turnout reached record levels.
None of this means that problems won’t arise on Election Day. If the vote is close, especially in a potentially decisive state such as Pennsylvania, we may enter into one of the most contentious periods in our history. But despite concerns since March over running an election during a pandemic and despite all the issues that have consumed courts these past few months, one fact is already clear about the 2020 vote: Political participation will be sky high.