American Democracy is facing a looming crisis of voter confidence. The first half of 2020 has demonstrated in at least three elections across very different states (Iowa, Wisconsin, and most recently, Georgia) that election officials across the country are woefully inept and the infrastructure for conducting elections is catastrophically inadequate. Each state demonstrated different ways that election systems can fail. Most worryingly, the solutions that have been proposed by election officials and lawmakers ahead of November are flawed in their own ways. The main hope that Democrats have put forward is especially inadequate: absentee ballots. As states expand mail-in ballot programs, the commentariat has largely missed one glaring problem with the systems, namely that 6% to 9% of mail-in ballots are tossed out due to procedural issues. The more one looks at the three disastrous primaries and then examines the proposed solutions, the more one realizes there is very little chance that the 2020 presidential election will go smoothly. And given that most of the problems are procedural and systematic, the 2020 election could make the 2000 presidential election look like a simple misunderstanding. We need only look at the first 6 months of elections this year.
The Iowa caucuses were an unmitigated disaster. The Iowa Democratic Party tried to use a new app to collect and process vote tallies, but the app was buggy, and back up systems failed almost immediately, leaving a tense nation to wait for several agonizing days for results, which were immediately declared spurious anyway. The app debacle was of course a vindication for all tech skeptics who have argued that introducing newly developed software products to election systems is a bad idea. But with the coronavirus pandemic disaster only just starting to reach scale in several states across the country, many election officials are teasing the idea of using mobile apps despite the disaster in Iowa.
Michael Alvarez, professor of political and computational social science at Caltech and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, had this to say: “It’s just really hard to know and have that crystal ball and look into the future and see where that ultimate killer voting app might come from... In one of these coming elections, if we have a significant crisis, that could motivate the federal government and states to start getting serious about making an investment in improving the technology of democracy in the United States.” Dr. Alvarez’s statement hinges on the word ‘significant’. The problem is that we have already had three significant election failures this year, and an app was the main culprit in the first one.
The second disaster, the Wisconsin primary, came after the coronavirus pandemic had struck, revealing what the November election could look like. Most significantly, voters were forced to stand in long lines for hours on end and come in contact with polling stations that hundreds of people passed through over the course of the day. Thousands of voters were potentially exposed to the coronavirus as a result, though only a few dozen cases have been conclusively linked to the vote. Still, on average, an additional 100 people per polling station doubled a county’s COVID-19 positive case test rate two to three weeks following the election, one study found. And why were there an “additional 100 people per polling station” in the first place? The answer is that the GOP-controlled state legislature did not provide enough polling stations to cover the entire population, and the Democratic governor did not properly advocate for absentee ballots, therefore ensuring that thousands of Wisconsinites were disenfranchised.
With both Wisconsin and Iowa already exposing problems, Georgia’s primary, which followed Wisconsin’s playbook by restricting the number of polling stations, only made the situation worse. On top of an inadequate absentee ballot system and too few polling stations, Georgia added several new irregularities to the mix, such as voting machine malfunctions and logistical problems, resulting in problems across the state. Georgia has historically been one of the most difficult states to vote in, especially for minority voters, due to the openly anti-democratic “reforms” that the Republican state leadership has imposed over the decades. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, placed the blame squarely on the Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger. "The Constitution puts the obligation for the conduct of elections squarely in the hands of the secretary of state. On top of that, [Raffensperger] very vigorously pushed to purchase new machines that he insisted would be ready for roll out in the primary, at the cost of $107 million," Abrams told NPR on the Friday after the election. "He failed to adequately direct, train, and invest in the counties so they could do their work."
So what then are the solutions ahead of November? With time running short and budgets tightening due to a severe economic downturn, officials are facing one of the most important tests of their lifetime in an election that is sure to be the most consequential since 2016. We need solutions, and we need them now if we are going to avoid an unmitigated disaster in November.
Experts disagree about the way forward, but absentee ballots are gaining popularity as a potential solution to problems associated with in-person voting. After all, in-person voting requires people to take time off from work, exert themselves physically by walking and standing in long lines, and this year, it also entails possible exposure to a deadly disease. "The public health implications are clear and follow common sense: in-person voting in the midst of a pandemic caused by a highly infectious pathogen is a terrible idea,” said Steffanie Strathdee, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate dean of global health sciences at UC San Diego. “Absentee voting should be the norm in such situations.”
The problem with absentee ballots is that they expose the system to user error. As I noted in a recent op-ed, both the leftwing and the rightwing are wrong about the efficacy of absentee ballot systems. Conservatives are wrong about the extent to which absentee voter fraud is a significant issue – it most certainly is not. But liberals are wrong that absentee ballots constitute a foolproof solution to America’s electoral problems. With 6% to 9% of ballots tossed out regularly in elections across the nation, it equates to potentially hundreds of thousands of votes in each state that will not be counted as millions of voters transition to absentee ballots. That is more than enough votes to swing entire elections, including the November 2020 presidential election. The reason so many ballots get thrown away is simple: many states make the process of submitting an absentee ballot needlessly complicated. In many states, lawmakers have intentionally made the process of submitting an absentee ballot difficult in order to prevent vulnerable populations from utilizing them.
And make no mistake: Republicans are very aware that expanded absentee ballots could affect them in elections in which more people will be able to vote. Trump has a way of saying what Republicans are thinking, and on this topic, Trump has been very clear. “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it,” Trump tweeted in April.
“Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” His tweet came a week after he made a now-infamous admission on Fox & Friends, saying about Democrats’ vote-by-mail proposals in Congress, that “they had a level of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Trump and the GOP have systematically sown doubts about absentee ballots over the past few months and they will continue to do so right up until the election in November. Trump has even declared on twitter that mail-in ballots "will be the greatest Rigged Election in history. People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and 'force' people to sign. Also, forge names. Some absentee OK, when necessary. Trying to use Covid for this Scam!"
But not all Republican officials are on board with the President and party leadership when it comes to mail-in ballots. “Democrats will use the new mail-in ballot to greatly increase their turnout,” the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, which has advocated to increase mail-in ballots, says on its website. “Republicans would be smart to do the same so that we have the advantage.” They are concerned that democrats will register for mail-in ballots more than Republicans, and that Republicans will not be able to make up the difference by turning out to the polls. But even this worry might be unfounded. According to the New York Times, in the five states that conduct nearly all elections exclusively by mail, there is no evidence that widespread use of mail voting benefits Democrats, as Mr. Trump fears.
“We Arizonans look with some amusement upon the national debate raging around mail ballots,” said Kirk Adams, a former chief of staff to Mr. Ducey, a Republican governor elected in 2018 in part by substantial numbers of mail-in ballots. “The majority of mail-in ballots requested are Republican ballots.”
Confusion reigns about mail-in ballots and polling station irregularities. At least three times this year, various states across the union have demonstrated their inability to properly conduct elections using the systems that are currently in place. Moreover, real liabilities with absentee ballots all but guarantee that Trump will contest the election in November whether he wins or not. He has already said as much: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!”
The challenge America now faces is in preventing a rogue president from sullying our sacred electoral processes by declaring them illegitimate, while at the same time using a flawed absentee ballot system to stem the already catastrophic public health crisis posed by the coronavirus pandemic. From where things look today, the odds of success seem very low. If nothing changes between now and November, get ready for a lot of lawyering. Actually, no matter what, get ready for a torrent of lawsuits in November. Trump has already promised that much.