The rickety, decentralized election system that has been a hallmark of American life is facing its most significant test yet under the combined pressure of a worsening coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump’s determination to undermine faith in the voting system.
In November, this year’s presidential election could be unlike anything the country has seen in at least 20 years, when the results of the 2000 election hinged on paper ballots and hanging chads.
As Trump’s poll numbers have flagged this summer, he has increasingly resorted to baseless allegations of widespread cheating and claims that Democrats will corrupt the result of the election through mail-in voting. And as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the country, the need for alternatives to in-person voting is becoming more urgent by the day.
Republicans and Democrats are now preparing for a pitched legal battle over which votes will count and when they should be counted. States are struggling to retrofit their voting process to meet the needs of voters concerned about risking their lives to cast their ballot. And primary elections held so far this summer indicate that November could bring historic turnout, albeit via mail-in ballots – and correspondingly, a lengthy wait for election results.
“When I take a look at many of the problems that have percolated up during the past month or two in primaries, we have four months to solve them,” said Tom Ridge, the former homeland security secretary and Pennsylvania governor who now co-chairs VoteSafe, a bipartisan effort to encourage states to expand absentee voting this year.
But even if those problems are largely resolved, Ridge, a Republican, said that historic levels of absentee voting will mean that election night will not bring the closure Americans have become used to.
“We shouldn’t be so focused on knowing that night. We might, it’s certainly a possibility, but let’s start talking about election week,” Ridge said.
A campaign to undermine faith in elections
Adding to the extraordinary pressures being exerted on American elections is the President himself, who has in recent weeks escalated his attacks against mail-in voting, pointing to a slew of nefarious consequences if more Americans are allowed to cast their ballot by mail.
“The Democrats are also trying to rig the election by sending out tens of millions of mail-in ballots, using the China virus as the excuse for allowing people not to go to the polls,” Trump said at a recent campaign event in Phoenix. “It’s going to be fraud all over the place.
“This will be, in my opinion, the most corrupt election in the history of our country,” he added.
Already, former Vice President Joe Biden is sounding the alarm, warning that Trump’s attacks on voting are laying the groundwork for him to reject the results of the November election if he loses.
“It’s my greatest concern, my single greatest concern,” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said last month. “This President is going it try to steal this election.”
Biden has gone further, warning that Trump might refuse to leave office and suggesting that the military could play a role in forcing him to leave if he loses.
The Biden campaign is responding to a more than $20 million effort by the Republican National Committee to combat efforts to expand vote-by-mail with a legal army of their own. The campaign said it would organize 600 lawyers and 10,000 volunteers across the country for their voter protection efforts.
Meantime, the election processes, which differs in every jurisdiction in the country, appears unprepared to instill confidence in the system.
“The one thing we do know is that there is no historical anecdote that speaks to the massive fraud and massive abuse of the system that the President has complained about,” said Ridge. “The one thing we do know is, as a country, we have four months to try to deal with some of these challenges. And the one thing we do know is the President of the United States could take the lead to provide safe and secure options for all of his fellow citizens, rather than running and filing lawsuits.”
A slew of recent primary elections have vividly demonstrated the potential pitfalls Americans face in attempting to vote during this pandemic.
One of the most acute problems: staffing. In Wisconsin, Kentucky, Georgia and elsewhere, election officials have scrambled to find new, younger poll workers to man in-person precincts that previously had relied on older retirees who are now choosing to stay at home because they are at greater risk from the coronavirus.
In North Carolina, state party officials are already recruiting poll workers in a call-to-service.
“Not all heroes wear capes. YOU can be a hero for democracy in 2020!” the solicitation reads.
Ohio election officials recently mused that people who are out of work or those working from home may provide an untapped source of Election Day labor. Election officials are particularly concerned about the prospect that poll workers might abandon their posts at the last minute giving them no time to find replacements.
That scenario played out in Georgia’s recent primary on June 9, which prompted officials in that state to scramble to find new poll workers up until the last weekend before Election Day. In some cases, poll workers showed up at their assigned precinct on election morning only to be abruptly reassigned to another precinct.
And in nearly every primary held since the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the results have taken days or even weeks to finalize. Pennsylvania’s primary, for example, was held on June 7 and, a month later, the results still have not been certified.
Some states do not allow ballots to be counted until polls close. And Democrats and Republicans are locked in legal battles in courts across the country over whether ballots should be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day or received by Election Day, an issue that could have a significant impact on whether hundreds of thousands of mail-in votes are counted.
Voters face life-or-death choices
Trump’s rhetorical bomb throwing against mail-in voting contrasts sharply with the reality faced by voters like 36-year-old Maria Nelson, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago and is still undergoing chemotherapy treatments every few weeks. Nelson lives with the fear that she might have to sacrifice her right to vote in order to remain alive for her two young children.
“I knew that I was in a health pool that was at risk,” Nelson told CNN. “I wouldn’t do anything that would risk my life even further. So that included voting in person for me.”
Nelson requested an absentee ballot in Wisconsin ahead of that state’s April 7 primary, and that’s when her story became emblematic of the chaos that would unfold there and elsewhere in the country. Her ballot came – but on April 8, too late for her to vote.
“This isn’t an easy decision for people,” Nelson said. “Requesting an absentee ballot or having fear of going to vote in person isn’t the easy way out. It’s not being lazy. It’s truly this fear for your health.
“And when you’re a young mother like I am, you just have to look at your children and really say this isn’t a risk that I’m willing to take.”
Wisconsin’s election featured many more reports from voters like Nelson complaining their ballots were never received. And later postal service would reportedly discover boxes of missing ballots that had been delayed or not delivered.
One of those likely belonged to Melody McCurtis, a Wisconsin community organizer who requested an absentee ballot to avoid putting her mother, who lives in her home, and her children at risk.
“Nobody notified me that it wasn’t coming,” McCurtis said. “I’m just like, Where’s my ballot? Where’s my ballot? I tried to call my clerk, no answer. On April 6, I call, and again April 7, they said was nothing you can do or nothing we can do, you have to go to the polls and vote because it’s not coming.”
McCurtis’ ballot never came.
She became one of the many Wisconsin voters who showed up at the polls in person on Election Day and faced massive lines that weren’t socially distanced and became emblematic of a failed execution of an Election Day during a pandemic that is now a warning sign to other states contemplating election changes.
Both Nelson and McCurtis are now plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to force Wisconsin to change its election practices, alleging that the state’s mismanagement of its the April 7 primary disenfranchised voters.
A study conducted by Anthony Fowler, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago that was submitted as part of the suit, found that voters who had never used absentee ballots before were less likely to vote in the primary. And that in counties with a high incidence of coronavirus cases, turnout was lower than in counties where there had not been confirmed cases.
These problems also affect Black and Hispanic voters acutely. The study found that communities with high Black and Hispanic populations also saw lower voter turnout.
“We were definitely disenfranchised and we’re definitely at risk for that happening again, because COVID-19 is not going away,” said McCurtis, who is Black. “And we see that it’s climbing every day. And I feel like a black, brown and poor communities are at risk of this happening again. And I feel like the powers that be are not taking this seriously enough. They’re not valuing our lives at this point.”