Report Card for Election Administrators, Congress, Media, Social Media and Others in Handling “Fair Elections During a Crisis”

When I was writing my book, Election Meltdown, I recognized that although there are decent medium- and long-term ways to improve how our elections are run and bolster voter confidence in the legitimacy of our election system, short term solutions were hard to come by. So, with generous funding from the Democracy Fund, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, I convened a conference that took place at UC irvine at the end of February called “Can American Democracy Survive the 2020 Elections?” Then some of the speakers at the conference–a cross-ideological and cross-disciplinary group of leaders in law, media, politics and norms, and tech—came together as a committee to draft a report on what could be done in time for the 2020 elections. We drafted the report mostly online just as the coronavirus crisis hit the United States, causing us to modify some of our recommendations.

We issued a report in April called Fair Elections During a Crisis with a set of 14 recommendations across law, media, tech, and politics. We are now a day before the election and I wanted to reflect on how well different actors who help assure we have safe and fair elections have done during this crisis. These views are mine alone. The committee stopped existing as a formal body after we issued the report, and I do not purport to speak for anyone else on the committee.

  1. Local Election Administrators A+

Our report recommended a number of steps that election administrators could take to deal with the tremendous difficulties of conducting an election during the pandemic both in person and absentee voting being more difficult. We called on election administrators to provide various paths to assuring voters have safe and healthy means of voting. We called on election administrators to consider how to deal with election emergencies and to make contingency plans. While there are still pockets of weak election administration, an overall grade of A+ goes to the local election administrators who have stepped up to be on the front lines of our democracy during this pandemic.

2. State legislatures and Secretaries of State B

This grade is an average grade. Some state legislatures deserve an A for stepping up and making voting easier during a pandemic, easing voting requirements for voting by mail and extending deadlines or early voting periods. This includes both Democratic and Republican led states. There was a subset of Republican state legislators and Secretaries of State, however, who have fought politically and in court against safe and healthy voting during a pandemic. Some of these folks deserve an F. States also need to do more about election security, paper backups, and risk-limiting audits, a topic which has gotten less attention than it deserves with everything going on. (An A for the coalition of federal, state, and local election administrators working on election cybersecurity behind the scenes.)

3. Senate Republicans F

Senate Republicans blocked additional money for election reform. Those expenses are still there during the pandemic and now we will just have sloppier elections, which raise the risk of problems that can delegitimize the election. Republicans in the Senate also blocked more money for election security.

4. House Democrats C

Democrats overreached in their election reform bills, including trying to pass laws to make no excuse absentee balloting permanent, and not just for this pandemic election, a total nonstarter with a Republican Senate. While there was no guarantee that Republicans would compromise, there was little sense or urgency coming from House Democrats about finding a viable compromise.

5. Social media companies C-

On the one hand, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have addressed some of the problems concerning disinformation, and Twitter has perhaps been the best with its pre-bunking, its read-the-story-first friction, and its leadership with respect to treating Trump disinformation. Facebook has been good at addressing coordinated attacks, but they have not addressed the fundamental problems of how their model of engagement encourages disinformation. But overall, the companies seem still to be acting on the fly, constantly surprised by manipulation of their platforms, showing a deep failure to grapple with how they’ve become tools of disinformation. The handling of the New York Post Hunter Biden stories shows just how poorly prepared these companies have been even for things that could be easily anticipated.

6. NGOs A There have been a number of efforts to help bolster the legitimacy of the 2020 election, including from groups that have strived to be bipartisan and comprehensive in dealing with all kinds of threats to the election process. These groups have produced reports and issued guidelines for how to conduct fair and safe elections during a pandemic, and how to deal with potentially contested elections.

7. The Media Incomplete

The media have done an excellent job overall covering voting during the pandemic and the extent to which some actors have tried to make it hard to vote through court cases and legislative and administrative rules. This issue has gotten a lot of attention. There have been a lot of explainers about how voting works, and great public service messaging about how to maximize the chances of voting during the pandemic.

The reason for the incomplete is that the media’s biggest test comes on election night.

The pandemic has drastically shifted many people to voting by mail, but President Trump’s statements against voting by mail has created a partisan divide: more Democrats and independents are voting by mail and more Republicans are voting in person. Depending upon how states report their election returns, a state that starts out with a big Biden or Trump lead could reverse as more mail-in or in person votes get added into the mix.

The problem is especially dramatic in Pennsylvania because that state’s Republican legislature has blocked the early processing of absentee ballots (in contrast, in Florida we will have most of those absentee votes counted by the time the evening is over). According to calculations by FiveThirtyEight, we could be in a situation where Trump is ahead by as much as 16 points on election night in Pennsylvania, only to see a loss of 5 points or more when all the ballots are counted within about a week of the election: a 21-point swing.

Saying that a candidate is leading when the votes outstanding could skew one way or the other is a recipe for disaster, because supporters may believe the election is stolen with such dramatic shifts in voting results. That’s why it is crucial for media to give a “too early to call” message on election night in those states where the outstanding ballots easily could shift the results of the race.

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