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Saving the Vote in 2020: Elections and the Coronavirus

The coronavirus is a health crisis and an economic crisis. Without urgent action, it will become a democracy crisis in November. How can we avoid a debacle? How can we have an election that is free, fair, secure – and safe?

Past: Monday, May 4, 2020 12:00 pm
This is a virtual event.
  • Michael Waldman
  • ,
  • Wendy Weiser
  • ,
  • Larry Norden
  • Myrna Pérez
Zoom event image


Larry Norden, Director, Elec­tion Reform, Demo­cracy Program, Bren­nan Center for Justice
Myrna Pérez, Director, Voting Rights & Elec­tions, Demo­cracy Program, Bren­nan Center for Justice
Wendy Weiser, Vice Pres­id­ent, Demo­cracy Program, Bren­nan Center for Justice

Michael Wald­man, Pres­id­ent, Bren­nan Center for Justice

MICHAEL WALD­MAN: Good after­noon, every­body. I’m Michael Wald­man. I am the pres­id­ent of the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. I don’t know if you can see me or not or hear me, but I hope you’re there. I hope you are all doing OK in this unset­tling and diffi­cult time. And we’re delighted to be able to be with you today. 

This is a conver­sa­tion, a brief­ing, an update on a crit­ical topic, saving the vote in 2020 — how we can wage an elec­tion that is free and fair and secure in the middle of this coronavirus pandemic. 

And I should say with grat­it­ude that the program is being produced together with the Brademas Center at NYU, the John Brademas Center, which is dedic­ated in so many ways to civil debate on our polit­ics and under­stand­ing Congress and the way our coun­try func­tions.

The basic chal­lenge we all face is this: We all know that this pandemic is a health crisis, a terrible health crisis. We know, of course, that it’s an economic crisis. But if we don’t act and urgently act in our coun­try, it will be a demo­cracy crisis as well. It will be a demo­cracy crisis in Novem­ber. And we saw the first omen, one of several, about this in Wiscon­sin in the primary last month, where voters were liter­ally forced to choose between their health and their right to vote. And that’s a choice no Amer­ican should have to make, we believe.

To me, the kind of archetypal image of this whole matter right now was when the speaker of the Wiscon­sin assembly on primary day, having endeavored to make sure that the primary went forward even despite the health risks, reas­sured voters, no, no, no, it’s fine to vote; there’s no prob­lem. And he was at the time liter­ally wear­ing a hazmat suit as he was talk­ing to report­ers. We don’t want to have to see many Wiscon­sins, many scenes like that, in Novem­ber.

And there’s been bipar­tisan action, but now the pres­id­ent has begun to loudly weigh in and loudly complain about some of the needed changes. He went off script a bit and said he was worried that higher voting would not be good for him polit­ic­ally, and then remembered the script and began to worry more piously about the risk of voter fraud. But unfor­tu­nately, this has become an intense polit­ical conver­sa­tion as well.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice and NYU School of Law, as most of you know — you are a community in so many differ­ent ways — you know that we’re in the middle of this fight for free and fair and secure elec­tions. We’re a nonpar­tisan law and policy insti­tute. We work to strengthen, improve, and defend the systems of demo­cracy and justice. And the great chal­lenge this year is how we make this elec­tion work out so that voters can have their say and have it said well.

As you’re about to hear from my colleagues, we’ve put together a plan of what needs to happen, ranging from univer­sal avail­ab­il­ity of vote by mail to ample early voting and other in-person voting oppor­tun­it­ies. We’ve all been work­ing to try to get the neces­sary fund­ing for states from Congress for this. And we’re part of a great move­ment nation­wide, left and right and center, trying to make this demo­cracy work in Novem­ber, which is a big, big chal­lenge in a moment like this. And Congress has only a few weeks, really, we think, to act. And you can hear about that also. 

To talk about this, to answer your ques­tions, to go into some greater depth, we’ve got the Bren­nan Center’s lead­ing experts on elec­tions and lead­ing experts on demo­cracy, and they will be able to bring you up to date and let you know what we think can happen, should happen, to make sure this does­n’t happen again, and we’ll be delighted to answer your ques­tions.

So let me start by just intro­du­cing my colleagues so they can say hello, and then I’ll start with the first ques­tion. So the first person you’re going to hear from is Wendy Weiser. She’s the vice pres­id­ent for demo­cracy at the Bren­nan Center and, of course, a national voice and expert on so many of these issues. Hi, Wendy. 

WENDY WEISER: Hello, and welcome to every­body. 

WALD­MAN: And then after Wendy we’ll hear from Larry Norden. Larry is the director of our Elec­tion Reform Program and works on elec­tion secur­ity and how we can make these elec­tions run well. 

LARRY NORDEN: Hi, Michael. Hi, every­one. 

WALD­MAN: And we’re thrilled beyond words that the cameras seem to be work­ing. So let this be an omen, a posit­ive omen, for the fall. And then we will hear from and be in conver­sa­tion with our colleague, Myrna Pérez. She is the director of the Voting Rights & Elec­tions Program at the Bren­nan Center and, of course, a lead­ing and passion­ate voice for voting rights.

MYRNA PÉREZ: Hey, every­one. Thanks for being here.

WALD­MAN: And before we jump into the conver­sa­tion, I do want to invite those of you who are listen­ing to share your ques­tions and your comments for the panel. Type them into the Q&A box. We’re going to take as many of them as we can during the program. We’re going to wrap up, you know, by 1:00 East Coast time.

And given the chal­lenges that we face, why don’t we start with you, Wendy? Why don’t you tell us what you see as the big risks and what the key elements are of the Bren­nan Center plan that we’ll be talk­ing in greater detail about, what the coun­try has to do? 

WEISER: Well, it is really an enorm­ous and almost unpre­ced­en­ted task before us to run an elec­tion in the midst of a pandemic while main­tain­ing both the health and safety of the public and of our demo­cracy. And if we’re going to have a safe and fair elec­tion this Novem­ber, we’re going to need to see big changes to how we run our elec­tions, what the rules are, the prac­tices, and the infra­struc­ture of our elec­tion system, and I’m going to walk through just some of the key elements of what we see needs to happen. 

First and fore­most, we do need to make sure that every eligible Amer­ican who wants to can vote by a mail ballot. This sounds obvi­ous. You’ve thought of this yourselves and it is, in fact, the only prac­tical option for many Amer­ic­ans, espe­cially those who are sick or who are at risk. But the pres­id­ent and many offi­cials in places like Missouri and Louisi­ana are fight­ing against this, and we simply can’t force Amer­ic­ans to [face] that choice that Michael refer­enced, between having to choose between their health and their right to vote. 

So whether or not we make any changes to our elec­tion rules, though, we are going to see a dramatic surge in mail voting, and that’s part of what the lesson of the recent Wiscon­sin and Ohio elec­tions were. In Wiscon­sin, without any changes to those rules, the propor­tion of voters using absentee ballots went from 6 percent in 2018 to over 71 percent this year, and, as we got a preview in Wiscon­sin, our elec­tion system is simply not yet set up or prepared in most of the coun­try to process an elec­tion that has so many mail ballots.

We need to make a lot of adjust­ments now, and our elec­tion rules are going to need to be adjus­ted, too, to make sure that mail voting system is access­ible to every eligible voter and to make sure that the count­ing rules are fair. And in order to process all of those mail ballots we’re also going to need to extend our time for count­ing ballots. Amer­ic­ans are going to need to get used to the idea that they’re not going to be able to see elec­tion results on elec­tion night, espe­cially in the places with close elec­tions.

So that’s the mail voting. But we’re also going to need to have access to safe and sanit­ary polling sites in every state. It’s import­ant to know that even though we are going to need a dramatic expan­sion of mail ballots, it will be impossible to move to all-mail elec­tions regard­less of whether or not that would be a good idea. It’s really unreal­istic to assume that we’re going to go from 3 percent or 5 percent in some states to 100 percent in a matter of months. 

And also, polling loca­tions are crit­ical to fair elec­tions. If you don’t receive your ballot, if there’s a prob­lem with your ballot, if you need help voting, you are going to need to have in-person voting options. And so in order to have our polling places be safe and func­tional, we’re going to need to make changes to make sure that we can have social distan­cing and sanit­a­tion. We’re going to need to expand early voting, to spread it out over time. We don’t want to see long lines. We’re going to need larger loca­tions. And we’re going to need to have protect­ive equip­ment and sanit­a­tion equip­ment to make that work.

So, third, we’re going to see some changes to voter regis­tra­tion to make sure that regis­tra­tion options are avail­able online and by other remote meth­ods. This is a tick­ing time bomb. We haven’t heard a lot about this. But voter regis­tra­tion rates across the coun­try have already plummeted. The govern­ment offices where people mostly register to vote have shuttered. Voter regis­tra­tion drives are not able to access fairs, schools, other places where regis­tra­tion typic­ally happens. And we could see millions of Amer­ic­ans who typic­ally register in the lead-up to the elec­tion being shut out of the process unless we make regis­tra­tion options avail­able to them — expand­ing online regis­tra­tion, making sure that regis­tra­tion’s avail­able to people who don’t have driver’s licenses, making sure people who don’t have inter­net access can register as well.

And finally, for all of this we’re going to need to see a massive invest­ment in public educa­tion, espe­cially to counter what we expect to be a huge surge in disin­form­a­tion this year. This is a huge jump, some­thing that can’t be accom­plished unless we invest signi­fic­ant resources now into our state and local elec­tions systems.

WALD­MAN: Thank you so much, Wendy. That’s a big order to do in such a short period of time.

Larry Norden, why don’t you tell us how this is play­ing out in Congress? Because it’s really right now, given what Wendy has described as the chal­lenge facing the coun­try on this, only the federal govern­ment has the abil­ity, in effect, to spend, to print money, to do this kind of expendit­ure. We’ve seen that in the several stim­u­lus bills that have come out, three or three and a half, as they say. States and local­it­ies don’t have funds. And they have balanced budget require­ments, and they have crush­ing other needs. Why are we look­ing espe­cially to Congress, and what is happen­ing in Congress, and what should folks know about?

NORDEN: Right. Thanks, Michael. You’re exactly right when you talk about the strains that state and local govern­ments are facing right now. In fact, unfor­tu­nately, what we’ve seen if anything around elec­tions is that they’ve star­ted to cut back on the fund­ing that they’re giving to elec­tions. And as you said, states and local­it­ies face balanced budget require­ments. It’s really only Congress that has the resources that are needed to do the things that Wendy described. And what we found through a care­ful analysis is that Congress really needs to make avail­able at least $4 billion for the states and local­it­ies to be able to adopt the items that Wendy mentioned.

In slightly good news, you mentioned three other stim­u­lus pack­ages. In March when it looked like elec­tions were going to get zero, we worked with many other allies on this, we saw Congress provide $400 million to states to start making some of the adjust­ments that Wendy described. But as I said, that’s really a frac­tion of what’s needed. And in fact, we just put out an analysis last week with some other groups — R Street, the Alli­ance for Secur­ing Demo­cracy — that looked at five states in depth for inter­views with elec­tion offi­cials in terms of what they needed to do. Those states were Geor­gia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. And what we found is that the $400 million that Congress provided would­n’t even cover what those five states need this year to make sure that they can run fair and safe elec­tions.

Unfor­tu­nately, time is running out. Wendy mentioned a few things that really need to happen within the next month to six weeks if they’re going to have an impact on the elec­tion. Online voter regis­tra­tion is an example. A lot of states have online voter regis­tra­tion, but we’re going to see a massive increase in the use of online voter regis­tra­tion for the reas­ons that Wendy discussed. And if we want to increase capa­city for those systems, if we want to make sure they’re secure — remem­ber, just a couple of months ago, the big topic in elec­tions was are we going to see cyber­at­tacks against our systems. Suddenly, the online voter-regis­tra­tion system becomes much more import­ant to secure. That really has to happen. That work needs to start happen­ing within the next month. If juris­dic­tions want to buy high-speed scan­ners to count all these new ballots that may be coming through the mail, that needs to happen within the next month or so. And of course, if we’re going to be conduct­ing elec­tions much more by mail, we’re going to need to print envel­opes, print ballots, and the vendors are telling us that that needs to happen really by mid-June for juris­dic­tions around the coun­try.

So we don’t need to neces­sar­ily see the money out the door from Congress, but if elec­tion offi­cials are going to start making these orders they need to know that the money is coming. So we really think that in terms of the battle in Congress, we’ve got about a month to make this happen, or elec­tion juris­dic­tions might just not do the things that they need to do to make sure that we can run a fair and cred­ible elec­tion this fall.

Four billion dollars may sound like a lot of money, and of course it is, and in normal times I would say there would be no chance that Congress would possibly provide that much money. But of course, this is not normal times. There have already been three stim­u­lus pack­ages that add up to about $3 tril­lion. Pelosi has recently said she wants another tril­lion dollars in the next pack­age. So $4 billion is about one-one-thou­sandth of that amount of money. It’s a drop in the bucket. And we certainly believe if you want to have a demo­cracy that works, if you want to have parti­cip­a­tion, if you want to have trust at the end of the day in that elec­tion, we’ve got to make sure that we get that money from Congress really this month, in May.

WALD­MAN: Thanks so much, Larry.

And of course, the purpose of getting funds of this kind or persuad­ing Congress to appro­pri­ate these funds is to enable states to do what they need to do. And as we all know, 50 states run 50 state elec­tions, really many more than that — counties run local and county elec­tions. It’s an extraordin­ary chal­lenge in a system as frac­tured as ours to make the kinds of changes that need to happen, but our atten­tion is going to have to pivot very hard to the states. And, Myrna, could you tell us, what do states need to do to get ready for this? We were expect­ing in 2020 a record-high turnout and the system was barely ready for that as it star­ted. But what do states need to do and what are they doing to get ready?

PÉREZ: There are a lot of things that states need to do. And the way that I think advoc­ates and folks who want to effec­tu­ate change need to look at it is in terms of our vari­ous differ­ent pipelines for our elec­tions. 

First, we have regis­tra­tion. So we do have a prob­lem where our elec­tion system is going to be a closed loop unless we bring in those who are eligible but unre­gistered into the system. And as has been noted before, we’re going to have a prob­lem with that when we have govern­ment offices shuttered so that people can’t go in and register when they’re doing that, and we can’t do voter-regis­tra­tion drives out in the community because of social-distan­cing orders. So one of the things that needs to happen is we need to figure out how we’re going to get people who are eligible but unre­gistered in the system. Certainly, online regis­tra­tion is part of that, but we also need to make sure that we are doing the public educa­tion and chan­ging the way we register voters in such a way that will bring more people in. So that’s one partic­u­lar bucket.

The next thing that folks need to do — that states need to do — is make sure that our rules and our proced­ures are such that every­body can parti­cip­ate. If you don’t have a photo ID right now, you’re not going to be able to get one, right, not as long as govern­ment agen­cies are shuttered. And there­fore, making parti­cip­a­tion contin­gent on either having an ID to request an absentee ballot or to vote in person is going to be really fall­ing on parts of our communit­ies that are tradi­tion­ally disen­fran­chised.

Then we need to make sure that our elec­tion rules are clean. If we’re going to be using vote-by-mail systems, we need to make sure that people can trust the addresses that they’re send­ing mailed ballots to. And that means making sure that there’s lots of touches with voters, lots of connec­tions with voters, that we’re constantly updat­ing our voter-regis­tra­tion lists so that people have accur­ate addresses in order to send our mail ballots.

And then we need to make sure that our polling places are done in a safe way. The real­ity is that not every­one is going to be able to vote by mail. In part some of it is going to be a tech­no­lo­gical limit­a­tion because there are going to be folks who can’t get their applic­a­tions processed on time or folks who are unfa­mil­iar with the system, so don’t under­stand that they need to request it in advance. And polling places are going to be import­ant fail-safes when inev­it­able glitches happen. 

But we can’t forget that there are parts of our community that just do not trust the mail. They already get really bad mail service. And these areas can be as diverse as really dense urban areas or really rural areas. There’s a lot of really good evid­ence about how Native Amer­ican communit­ies have really terrible access to vote by mail. And we have to make sure that we are not baking into our elect­oral process a system fail­ure already. People already get bad mail service and bad govern­ment services, and then we don’t want to cut off the very aven­ues that they have to change that by build­ing our voting process on top of a system that is already not serving people.

And then, finally, we need to make sure that our states and local­it­ies are think­ing about where the gaps in the system are. Who is getting left out? How are we doing going the extra mile to make sure that people are being reached on Elec­tion Day? Because we are going to have a prob­lem of folks not being able to parti­cip­ate and vote in a time where we really do need the voices of all members of our community. We’re in the middle of a crisis and we need the expert­ise and exper­i­ence of all of us to be able to set the direc­tion.

So there’s a lot that states can do. Depend­ing on the state, some of these changes may need to happen from the exec­ut­ive or the legis­lature or local elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. But all hope is not lost. There’s some­thing we can do if all 600 people on this call put our shoulder into it and decide that we’re going to make sure that we have an inclus­ive and safe and fair elec­tion in 2020.

WALD­MAN: Thanks so much. And we’re going to get into more detail, because folks do want to know what’s going on in states and how the decisions are being made.

But a number of the ques­tions, Myrna, that you raised about vote by mail — I want to go back to Wendy Weiser, because this whole issue of what needs to be done in this elec­tion has gotten sort of tele­scoped into the short­hand of this is all about vote by mail. It’s broader than that, but it’s a pretty signi­fic­ant thing.

Now, a large part of the coun­try, of course, already votes by mail, and without any unto­ward effect. But why does this move to univer­sal access to vote by mail matter? And is there a partisan impact, as some have worried? And how do we make sure that it works out well, since it would be a big change for a number of places? 

WEISER: Well, thank you, Michael.

And there has been some unfor­tu­nate politi­ciz­a­tion or confu­sion around vote by mail. And it’s import­ant for people to know that this is already deeply embed­ded in the Amer­ican elect­oral system. A quarter of Amer­ic­ans, more than 31 million Amer­ic­ans, voted by mail in the 2018 elec­tion. In 2016 the numbers were similar. This is some­thing that is a secure and well-estab­lished form of elec­tion all across the coun­try, except some places use it very widely and in other places only a small portion of voters use absentee or mail ballots in the typical elec­tion year. And so we’re going to have to see signi­fic­ant changes.

To the extent that people have raised ques­tions about is this going to have a partisan impact, the research and evid­ence is clear that moving to signi­fic­ant mail voting has no over­all partisan impact on the elec­tions. There are five states that actu­ally now conduct their elec­tions prin­cip­ally using mail ballots, and there’s been a lot of data over time, and that has not had a partisan impact on any of the races, research­ers have shown.

To the extent that in the recent Wiscon­sin elec­tion there were some Demo­crats who were using vote by mail more than Repub­lic­ans, that is not an evid­ence of any partisan impact of vote by mail. That was just how the elect­or­ate voted in that partic­u­lar race.

And it’s import­ant to know that while you might have heard some discus­sion of partisan oppos­i­tion to vote by mail, that is not the case in most of the coun­try. Elec­tion offi­cials, polit­ical lead­ers, Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats across the coun­try have embraced this move to vote by mail as the prac­tical and neces­sary move to main­tain the health and safety of the popu­la­tion and the general public. We’ve had Repub­lican governors and elec­tion offi­cials, the major­ity of whom across the coun­try have been speak­ing out very force­fully about the need to make these changes. And the real risk isn’t whether or not there’s going to be a partisan impact but whether or not we’re going to have fair rules to make sure every Amer­ican can access mail ballots and that they’re coun­ted fairly.

And the devil is often in the details, but these rules really matter. A recent Flor­ida study, for example, found that mail ballots cast by African Amer­ican and Latino voters were twice as likely to be rejec­ted when coun­ted as those cast by white voters. In today’s Wash­ing­ton Post, we can read that 30,000 of the ballots that were cast in the last Wiscon­sin elec­tion actu­ally would­n’t have been coun­ted if a court hadn’t inter­vened to allow ballots that were submit­ted before Elec­tion Day but didn’t arrive to elec­tion offi­cials until after Elec­tion Day because of the slow mail to count. So there’s a whole range of rules like this that we’re going to have to scru­tin­ize between now and Elec­tion Day to make sure that every Amer­ican can have a reas­on­able access to mail voting.

WALD­MAN: Thank you. And you know, again, you’re right that for those of us at the Bren­nan Center, those of us who’ve been work­ing on voting rights, a big whole­sale shift to vote by mail was not exactly the secret wish list that people had. It just seems at this moment that there’s not much of a choice if we want people to be able to vote and be safe in 2020.

Let’s turn quickly to the real­politik in Wash­ing­ton and in states of how this can happen. Larry, Congress has, as we say, already appro­pri­ated $400 million. And in the next few weeks, there’s going to be a pretty intense push, debate, fight over another stim­u­lus bill, with all the moving parts. What could happen, and who are the key play­ers that folks should know about? How could this play out?

NORDEN: Right. Well, the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship has already made clear that this is a prior­ity for them. So both Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schu­mer have said they want to see fund­ing in the next stim­u­lus pack­age that goes to states and local­it­ies for elec­tions. In a previ­ous proposal, Speaker Pelosi had a figure of around $4 billion to the states. And I would­n’t be surprised if we see a similar number come out in the new proposal. In general, I think the Demo­crats have been push­ing more for a new stim­u­lus pack­age and Repub­lic­ans in Congress have been saying let’s wait and see. 

You know, as time goes on and the need just gener­ally around the coun­try for addi­tional fund­ing from Congress becomes more appar­ent, that may be a diffi­cult line to hold. So I do expect that we’re going to start in the next few weeks to see real nego­ti­ations over the next stim­u­lus pack­age. And then the ques­tion really is, is elec­tion fund­ing in it or not? And from what I described you might say, well, the Demo­crats are going to be the ones that are going to be push­ing for fund­ing and Repub­lic­ans will be saying no. And that’s kind of how it played out last time when we had the $400 million.

But I think the dynamic is prob­ably a little bit more complic­ated than that. At the end of the day, the Demo­crats and the Repub­lic­ans need to come up with an agree­ment. That’s the only way that anything will pass through Congress, obvi­ously. And so just as much as it’s import­ant to put pres­sure on Repub­lic­ans to accept that there is addi­tional fund­ing that’s needed, I think there needs to be pres­sure on the Demo­crats to make sure that when they get to the nego­ti­at­ing table, and there are many, many obvi­ously import­ant needs around the coun­try, that elec­tion fund­ing does­n’t fall off the table.

When these nego­ti­ations happen, obvi­ously it’s lead­er­ship. So Pelosi and Schu­mer are very import­ant. McCon­nell in partic­u­lar and McCarthy are import­ant. And then key figures on the Appro­pri­ations Commit­tees, like Senator Shelby from Alabama, Senator Blunt from Missouri, are going to be crit­ical. And I do think, you know, one of the import­ant things — Wendy mentioned this a bit — to remem­ber is that while there may be a partisan fight in Congress, there’s really bipar­tisan support on the ground for this. So there’s huge bipar­tisan support among elec­tion offi­cials for this. There’s a letter that’s out with over a hundred elec­tion offi­cials of both parties saying that they need more fund­ing for this. I mentioned this report that we put out last week where we had a media brief­ing; the major­ity of the elec­tion offi­cials that were on that call were Repub­lic­ans. And we’re start­ing to get the busi­ness community, faith lead­ers, others more involved in push­ing for this. So I think more of that bipar­tisan push to make clear that this is some­thing that every­body wants is going to be import­ant. 

WALD­MAN: And, Larry, one of the ques­tions we’re getting from folks who are listen­ing is, where does the money go? Who in the federal govern­ment distrib­utes it, and how many strings are attached? And how do we know states are going to do what we hope they will?

NORDEN: Right. So those are all good ques­tions.

In all like­li­hood — and the last $400 million went through the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, and that goes to the chief elec­tion officer — that money [will go] to the chief elec­tion officer in each state. I think there has been a push, partic­u­larly by local elec­tion offi­cials, that there should be some kind of a require­ment that more money goes to the locals. Michael mentioned there are 50 states running 50 elec­tions, but in fact, and this became clear in the report that we issued on the five states, most of the work and the expense is happen­ing at the local level, at the county level, at the town level. Those are the elec­tion offi­cials who have to spend money on things like mail­ing out the ballots, and making sure that there are enough poll work­ers, and that there’s enough protect­ive equip­ment for those poll work­ers, and that the polling places are sanit­ized. So that would be a useful stream.

There’s going to be fights in Congress over whether or not there should be any addi­tional strings to the money. I think our belief is if we can get the money out, that’s the most import­ant part of this. It would be nice to have certain require­ments — in my personal opin­ion — to have certain require­ments that go with that money to make sure that it’s spent correctly. But the truth of the matter is, having spent all this time talk­ing to elec­tion offi­cials in those five states that I mentioned, it’s clear to me they want to do the right thing for both their elec­tion work­ers and for their voters to make sure that they can parti­cip­ate. And again, while it would be really nice to have some minimum require­ments — I would be in favor of that — if we get them the money, most of them are going to do the right thing to making sure that there can be parti­cip­a­tion. 

WALD­MAN: Well, that really does again turn it back to the states, in brass-tacks terms. What can the folks on this call do to encour­age people in states — offi­cials in states, those with power in states — to do what they need to do? You know, one of the things the Bren­nan Center has done, we have a tremend­ously useful and frequently updated resource page on our website that we will circu­late if you don’t have the abil­ity to see it, with all the mater­i­als we’ve been devel­op­ing and produ­cing. But one of them is really a roadmap of what states have what rules already, and a lot of states already have really good rules. I mean, Wiscon­sin had vote by mail; it just — in a lot of ways, the system just buckled under the weight of going from 250,000 or so people who use it typic­ally to a million and a half in a week. What can governors do, what can secret­ar­ies of state do, what requires legis­la­tion? What are the lever points for people in states?

PÉREZ: I would encour­age every­one to look at the resource page that we have. I believe it’s going to be circu­lated later, and it shows what your state currently has that you can lean on. One of the nice things about this crisis is that there are lessons from not only other states, but oppor­tun­it­ies within states to borrow from exist­ing prac­tices and use them and lever­age them in bigger and bolder ways to bring more people in.

So, for example, if you are a state that already had an online regis­tra­tion system, you could also be a state that does­n’t require a driver’s license or social secur­ity number in order to be able to register to vote. We saw the state of North Caro­lina expand who was allowed to use their online regis­tra­tion system so that people aren’t getting double-wham­mied because they don’t have an ID because the govern­ment offices are shuttered, and then there­fore they can’t access the online regis­tra­tion tool. 

We can also see in some places that still have legis­latures that are oper­at­ing, and there are a hand­ful of them, people on this call and other advoc­ates can push for more resources intern­ally and to make sure that the policies that would bring more people into the elect­or­ate are able to be used. But if you don’t have a legis­lat­ive session that’s open you can push for an emer­gency legis­lat­ive session, and there are a lot of things that can be done just within the discre­tion of counties, and one of the things that we’re doing is trying to work really hard with counties to try and look at what their exist­ing resources are and how to expand them to bring more people in.

So, for example, you know, a county could decide to up its public educa­tion to let folks know what the dead­lines were for mail­ing in an absentee ballot, what the sort of rules and proced­ures are regard­ing who can vote by mail. They can expand the number of polling places. They can make determ­in­a­tions to add more polling places so that there are fewer people that have to congreg­ate.

So I’d encour­age every­one to look at that chart, figure out where your state falls short, and then take a look at what you can do in your state because there’s a lot that can still be done. And one thing to remem­ber is that this is not an on/off switch. It’s not like we either do it all or we do noth­ing.

Every inter­ven­tion that we do brings more people into the system, and every reform that we’re able to make is going to be mean­ing­ful for some­body. So we can’t look at the prob­lem before us and decide that it’s too big to do anything. We instead need to look and see what we can get done and get them done quickly and then move on to the next prob­lem.

WALD­MAN: And I have a ques­tion for all three of my colleagues. Is there a specific state or a specific example of where you think a state has [done] some­thing that we want them [all] to do, that they need to do, or some­thing that has happened and has moved well?

Myrna, why don’t I start with you?

PÉREZ: I think we’re in posi­tions where we see some states doing some things but they’re not going all the way, or some offi­cials. So, you know, I’m very grate­ful for the states that have decided to inter­pret their disab­il­ity or their health or their sick require­ments in order to have the excuse for an absentee ballot, that they’re expand­ing them to include people that are worried about the coronavirus.

I think using their exist­ing laws and inter­pret­ing them in a way that effect­ively turns them into no-excuse absentee is a good proced­ure. But then we also see a state like Texas, which has limited access to vote by mail, that is fight­ing tooth and nail to keep a very, very narrow, extraordin­ar­ily stingy inter­pret­a­tion of those things.

So I think the elect­oral process needs to be looked at as an ecosys­tem and there are a bunch of differ­ent inter­ven­tions that need to be done. And even if your state is good, for example, on letting people vote by mail, you prob­ably need to do more to make sure that there’s enough polling places for the communit­ies that can’t vote by mail. No one is in the clear. No one has a perfect model. There’s no state that I know of that we can say, yes, I feel comfort­able that every eligible Amer­ican will be able to vote. So there’s some­thing to do for all of us still.

WALD­MAN: Well, and to give an example of the kind of thing that has to happen, so six states right now don’t have, legally, what we would consider vote by mail or no-excuse absentee ballot­ing. In New York State, where the Bren­nan Center is located, you need a health excuse. Well, the governor has done an exec­ut­ive order saying that being told by the health author­it­ies to stay home is a health excuse. In Texas, the state offi­cials have said no, it is not, and there is now a lawsuit that has been filed to chal­lenge that.

While we and other voting rights groups and citizens are engaged in what’s going to have to be this kind of hand-to-hand legal and public policy combat in the states, the real big fight over the next few weeks is the Congress, and a number of the ques­tions that folks have sent in, and we have over a hundred ques­tions and we will do our best to get back to people — if we are unable to answer them now we’ll send you emails or put together some answers that every­one can see — a lot of them go around the debate over vote by mail. You know, first, is there fraud? And what about the charge that there is an unusual suscept­ib­il­ity to fraud? And, conversely, as a federal ques­tion, does a move to vote by mail risk disen­fran­chising people who aren’t used to using it or who have poor mail service and things like that?

So Wendy and Larry, can you talk through how this public debate with the pres­id­ent — with his very loud mega­phone, saying, oh, no, this is going to lead to cheat­ing — even as his support­ers encour­age their voters to vote by mail, how do you see the debate over this play­ing out?

WEISER: I’ll give it a start and then pass the baton to Larry.

It is, you know, certainly distress­ing to hear the pres­id­ent of the United States dispar­age the U.S. elect­oral system in such sweep­ing terms and to campaign against not only one of the main ways in which we have always voted, but against the main way we’re going to need to move the elec­tion system in order to main­tain public health.

And, you know, at first, as Michael noted, he said that the reason he was complain­ing about it is that it might increase turnout and cause people to vote, and that might not be good for him. He has now shif­ted his talk­ing points, and he and a couple — it’s still a minor­ity — of folks have been very vocal, saying vote by mail is not secure. People cheat. There’s going to be a lot of fraud.

We’ve looked into this. There have been a lot of stud­ies. Vote by mail is very secure. And while there might be slightly more oppor­tun­it­ies for miscon­duct than in polling-place voting, it is so incred­ibly rare that, like polling-place voting, an Amer­ican is more likely to be struck by light­ning than to commit mail voting fraud. This is just not a signi­fic­ant prob­lem. 

And one of the reas­ons is not only that we’ve had this in place for a long time, but over time states have developed multiple tools to ensure the secur­ity and elec­tion integ­rity of mail voting systems. And to just throw out some examples, the secrecy envel­ope, the mail-ballot envel­ope, where voters put very personal inform­a­tion, is matched against the voter rolls or a signa­ture — that’s one tool that’s in place in every state. Bar codes, and even intel­li­gent bar codes, where people can follow their ballot and see where it is along the process, is another tool that not only lets elec­tion offi­cials remove a ballot if some­body says I didn’t receive it and it comes in anyways, but also allows voters to ensure that their ballot gets there. There are secure drop boxes and drop-off loca­tions. There’s penal­ties. There’s audits. There’s a range of processes in place, that mean that this is a very secure form of elec­tions.

And a lot of elec­tion offi­cials have been point­ing out that, hey, you know, one of our actual biggest secur­ity concern head­ing into this elec­tion — and that’s still there — is the threat of foreign inter­fer­ence in our elec­tion and cyber­se­cur­ity threats. And one of the crit­ical weak­nesses that needed to be addressed is that in some states, the voters were going to be voting on elec­tronic voting machines that didn’t have a paper trail which could be audited and checked. That was a real secur­ity threat. You know, mail voting is paper and it can be checked, and it sort of adds secur­ity against that. So fraud not a really seri­ous risk.

But what is a risk is driv­ing up fears of the secur­ity of the elec­tion might cause voters to stay away. And there’s some evid­ence that at least some voters in Wiscon­sin stayed away from mail voting because of what the pres­id­ent said, anec­dot­ally. There’s evid­ence that this could be used to put in place voter-disen­fran­chise­ment meas­ures. This is gener­ally the play­book. We’ve seen that most in polling-site voting, but now those same kinds of fights over voter access and unne­ces­sary restric­tions are going to move to mail voting. And, of course, it could be used to tee up argu­ments against the fair­ness and legit­im­acy of an elec­tion if some­body does­n’t like the outcome. 

WALD­MAN: And as you know, of course, and a lot of the folks on this call know, over many years the Bren­nan Center has really looked into this bogus charge of voter fraud, which is used to disen­fran­chise people, as the only legally cogniz­able basis for a lot of these laws. And our research over the years has showed over and over that you’re more likely to be struck by light­ning than to commit in-person voter imper­son­a­tion. And the rates are quite similar for vote by mail. You know, again, it’s not a theor­et­ical thing.

Now, a large part of the coun­try has exper­i­ence with doing this. And there are always politi­cians and polit­ical oper­at­ives who are going to try to use tools to cheat. But in terms of voters them­selves, it’s really, really quite rare. But what we all did see was a genu­ine threat in the last elec­tion to the integ­rity and secur­ity of the ballot, which came through cyber­se­cur­ity chal­lenges and concerns that we have about Russia, or not just Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, whoever, taking advant­age of the holes in the system.

Larry Norden, you’ve been work­ing on this with a coali­tion of tech­no­logy experts and others over the years. What are the new risks? Does moving to vote by mail and early voting elim­in­ate the risk from cyber­at­tack, or does it sort of shift the loca­tion? Because the count­ing systems become even more import­ant, right?

NORDEN: Yeah. So first of all, I did want to mention one thing, just as an add-on to Wendy’s point, that on-the-ground elec­tion offi­cials don’t have the same concerns that the pres­id­ent has expressed, for the most part, around voter fraud. And in fact, we saw the Repub­lican secret­ary of state in Kentucky, Mitch McCon­nell’s home state of course, just part­ner with the Demo­cratic governor of that state to make sure that in their upcom­ing primary in June, that every voter has the oppor­tun­ity to vote by mail if they want to. So I think that really brings home the fact that elec­tion offi­cials of both parties are not worried in the same way that we hear kind of the partisan fight­ing in DC.

To your point, Michael, about cyber­se­cur­ity and, as I said earlier in the conver­sa­tion, the concern that a couple of months ago was on every­body’s minds in elec­tions, that hasn’t gone away. The Russian govern­ment, others that might want to inter­fere in our elec­tions didn’t decide because there’s a pandemic here that they’re no longer inter­ested in inter­fer­ing in our elec­tions. I would say, if anything, in some ways the concern should be greater, for a couple of reas­ons. One is, the resources that we thought we had to secure our systems, now some of them have to be diver­ted to just making sure that we can hold an elec­tion this Novem­ber. Some of the money that Commerce had previ­ously appro­pri­ated for cyber­se­cur­ity we know is getting redir­ec­ted to making sure that we can just hold elec­tions, period, this year. And in addi­tion, as you hinted, there’s poten­tially a new attack surface that we have to be concerned about.

If we’re rely­ing much more on online voter regis­tra­tion, if we’re rely­ing on online applic­a­tions for mail ballots, those become more import­ant targets than we would have thought of them just a few months ago. If the major­ity of the coun­try is voting by mail, then that online request form for mail ballots, then online voter regis­tra­tion become really crit­ical. And over the next few months we’re going to have to make sure that, with everything else that we’re doing, we’re paying more atten­tion to secur­ing those online systems. That we’re doing things like penet­ra­tion test­ing and audit­ing of those systems, and that when we count the ballots, the paper ballots that Wendy mentioned, we’re doing postelec­tion audits after­wards to make sure that we can trust the elec­tronic tallies. 

And I suppose the thing that concerns me the most about cyber­se­cur­ity right now is just that where a few months ago it was topics number one, two, and three if you went to an elec­tion offi­cial confer­ence, it’s fallen off the radar a little bit. And we’re just going to have to get the focus back on that over the summer.

WALD­MAN: Myrna, you had a point you wanted to quickly make?

PÉREZ: I just wanted to say that voters across the coun­try are frus­trated, I think, that politi­cians are not figur­ing out a common­sense way forward. When we’re hear­ing things like there should­n’t be vote by mail in the middle of a pandemic, that feels very out of touch with the real­ity of people’s lives — you know, their schools are closed, they can’t go out shop­ping. I mean, this coronavirus has disrup­ted all aspects of Amer­ican living. And our elec­tions are also going to have to change, just like our lives have to change. And so I think people are expect­ing politi­cians to put aside some of their differ­ences in figur­ing out a way forward. And one of those ways forward has to be vote by mail, this system. I think people are convinced that right now that is part of the solu­tion to how we’re going to get through this elec­tion safely.

WALD­MAN: That really gets to what I think is a ques­tion that a number of people have had, which is, given everything that’s going on, and all the crush­ing needs, and all the human needs, and the health-care needs, how can we get the word to Congress that this is crit­ical? And how can we get people focused on this? I do agree that people want to be able to vote. And they get mad when politi­cians don’t let them. And we saw that poten­tially in Wiscon­sin, in the public reac­tion to some of the things that went on there. But as we’re look­ing toward the next few weeks of a crit­ical push amid the din of all this, how do we get Congress to do what it needs to do?

Wendy and Larry?

WEISER: Well, I’ll just start, but I think that every­body who’s parti­cip­at­ing on this call has the networks and their own abil­ity to reach out to their members of Congress and make sure that they under­stand how much you think this is import­ant that they get money to ensure a safe and healthy elec­tion this year. The results if they don’t give the money are going to be disastrous across the coun­try. We’re going to see not just 40 Wiscon­sins, it’ll be much worse than what we saw in Wiscon­sin because turnout is going to be twice as large. The system buckled under half the turnout that it was going to see in Novem­ber in Wiscon­sin. And we’re not going to be able to be prepared. That’s going to lead to huge not just public health threats, but threats to the legit­im­acy and fair­ness of the elec­tion. And that’s really damaging to our demo­cracy and to the changes we need to see happen. So every­body should be making that a prior­ity through all your networks, to commu­nic­ate that to your members of Congress through all of those networks.

WALD­MAN: And so many of you have good rela­tion­ships with the members of Congress nation­ally or where you’re from. They need to hear from you. They need to hear from all of us. There’s a wide coali­tion. We’re certainly work­ing with many of them under the auspices of the Lead­er­ship Confer­ence on Civil and Human Rights in this fight in Wash­ing­ton, and so many others. But they need to hear from you as well. And one of the ques­tion­ers did prop­erly chide me for saying we could have 50 Wiscon­sins. And I should note, we could have 51 Wiscon­sins, because people in Wash­ing­ton, DC, also need to be able to vote, not be disen­fran­chised either by the pandemic or by the moder­ator of this conver­sa­tion.

Larry, what do you have to add?

NORDEN: I was just going to emphas­ize what Wendy said, you know, one of the reac­tions we got from members of Congress last time around, when we got the $400 million, is that they weren’t hear­ing from either elec­tion offi­cials or the public gener­ally that this was a high prior­ity for them. I think in the case of the elec­tion offi­cials it was because they were abso­lutely drown­ing. (Laughs.) You know, that was around the time when every­body suddenly real­ized they were going to have to poten­tially cancel their primar­ies and they were kind of strug­gling for a way to figure out how to make sure that they could have elec­tions.

But it matters for members of Congress to hear from the public that this matters to them. And I said this before, but you know, often the dynamic when you’re talk­ing about voting and Congress is people think, oh, the Demo­crats are push­ing for some reform, Repub­lic­ans are against it. Both sides matter in this nego­ti­ation. And even people that say that they’re with you, it’s import­ant that they hear from you because, at the end of the day, this is going to be a nego­ti­ation and it’s going to be about what each side is will­ing to give up. And it’s very import­ant, even though we’re hear­ing the right things from people like Schu­mer and Pelosi, that when push comes to shove they don’t let go of that and they make sure it’s in whatever final deal there is.

WALD­MAN: And one ques­tion that a number of people have asked, intriguingly, is about the post office. We know that there’s fund­ing crises at the post office, and the Postal Service would play a pretty import­ant role in a number of these scen­arios. Where does that play out?

PÉREZ: So I think the crisis that is facing the post office is yet another reason why we need to make sure that we protect in-person voting options. There are already some people that are not being served well by the post office. If service gets even more disrup­ted or uneven, those voters are going to be more impacted. And given the kinds of threats that the post office is seeing, we need to not be compla­cent about making sure that our elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors are provid­ing suffi­cient in-person polling place options.

In a time of crisis, voters need more options, not fewer. So we want to make sure we aren’t narrow­ing the options by saying only vote by mail or only X or only Y. Amer­ic­ans lead diverse and complex lives, and if we are going to meet all of their needs we need to have as many options as possible. That also must include safe and sanit­ary in-person polling place options. 

WALD­MAN: And a lot of it will depend on the course of the pandemic. If there is a second wave in the late fall, as we fear may be the case, then vote by mail will become a lot more import­ant. And if it goes away mira­cu­lously, as the pres­id­ent has previ­ously sugges­ted, then that makes it easier to focus on some of the other things.

Wendy, you had some­thing you wanted to add? 

WEISER: I just wanted to say by all means you should be also support­ing the post office and telling your member of Congress that we need to have a post office, not only for voting but for the myriad other ways in which we need it for our lives. I mean, that’s just nuts to let the post office go bank­rupt. I don’t think it makes a huge amount of sense to focus specific­ally on voting when talk­ing about the post office, given the pres­id­ent’s orient­a­tion towards voting right now.

WALD­MAN: And I think that we should prepare to wrap up. We will do our best to get back to the dozens of folks who have submit­ted ques­tions that we haven’t had time to get to, which is very encour­aging that there’s so much interest. It’s plainly the case that this is a great battle for our demo­cracy that’s taking place right now, and that in a weird way it’s less partisan than so many of the other fights. The further away you get from the cable TV studio, the less partisan it is. But break­ing through the grid­lock in Wash­ing­ton and break­ing through the extraordin­ary other chal­lenges Congress is facing is going to be really hard, and we’re going to need all of you. We’re going to need your help. We’re going to need outreach from busi­ness. We’re going to need it from elec­tion offi­cials. We’re going to need it from faith lead­ers. We’re going to need it in media atten­tion and in the broad polit­ical community, who are so import­ant to those who run for office and can make sure this is a top prior­ity. 

We have a few weeks. States will have to scramble if Congress does­n’t appro­pri­ate the money. But the key right now is to get Congress to do its part.

Please do take a look at the Bren­nan Center’s website, and we will share with all of you by email the mater­i­als we’ve been discuss­ing. And if there are ques­tions we can answer, specific state chal­lenges, state strategies, we’re really happy to do it.

I want to again thank my colleagues at the Bren­nan Center, thank our colleagues at the John Brademas Center. I think John Brademas, the late congress­man from Indi­ana and former pres­id­ent of NYU, would be both very inter­ested in this topic and pleased with the focus that we’re show­ing on this. I want to thank my colleagues Wendy Weiser and Larry Norden and Myrna Pérez, and those at the Bren­nan Center — Jeanne Park, Mellen O’Keefe, Jean­ine Chirlin, and Morgan Goode — who helped put on this event, and others as well.

And thank you all for being engaged, for being involved. Let’s keep up the pres­sure. This next month is going to really matter a lot as to whether we’re going to have an elec­tion in Novem­ber that is free and fair and secure and safe, and an elec­tion that plainly repres­ents the voice of the people and repres­ents a sound and a legit­im­ate basis for govern­ment going forward. So thank you to my colleagues and thank you to all of you. And onward. Thanks a lot.


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