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Election Lessons from 2020

The election wasn’t the disaster it could have been, but we still need to do better.

December 28, 2020

As the year ends and the Geor­gia run-off elec­tion is under­way, we should take a moment to look back at the elec­tion of 2020. The end-of-the-repub­lic dooms­day scen­arios we were collect­ively worried about did not mater­i­al­ize, but voters still exper­i­enced suppres­sion and other chal­lenges and barri­ers that we as a coun­try should not toler­ate.

It would be a mistake to assume the well-publi­cized threats were over­blown or unjus­ti­fied panic. The crises that were avoided happened because advoc­ates, community lead­ers, and other experts named the myriad of loom­ing prob­lems, galvan­ized public and polit­ical atten­tion around them, and worked with communit­ies, legis­lat­ors, elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors, and politi­cians to make numer­ous neces­sary improve­ments as quickly and effect­ively as possible. Concerned Amer­ic­ans from all walks of life took the threats seri­ously, rolled up our sleeves, and threw a ton of work, expert­ise, and money at the prob­lems.

What were some crit­ical things we collect­ively got done?

For starters, signi­fic­ant policy changes were imple­men­ted to make voting more access­ible in the wake of the pandemic. An analysis from the Bren­nan Center found that 35 states changed their voting laws to make cast­ing a ballot more access­ible. Forty-five states and DC allowed any voter to vote by mail or absentee ballot this Novem­ber, includ­ing eleven states that changed their rules in response to Covid-19. Nine states and DC sent all voters a mail ballot for the Novem­ber elec­tion, includ­ing five juris­dic­tions (Cali­for­nia, DC, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont) that did so for the first time. At least seven states expan­ded their early voting hours or began offer­ing early voting in person.

We enlis­ted new people to support and help our elec­tions run smoothly. Accord­ing to a Pew Research Center analysis, in 2018, 58 percent of poll work­ers were 61 or older, signi­fic­antly imped­ing our abil­ity to ensure that polling loca­tions be adequately serviced in light of seni­ors’ suscept­ib­il­ity to Covid-19. Elec­tion offi­cials took numer­ous steps to diver­sify the age of poll work­ers and replen­ish the pool. Michigan, for example, launched two programs to recruit both high school and college students as poll work­ers for the 2020 elec­tion. Across the coun­try, young people stepped up to help in unpre­ced­en­ted numbers

We lever­aged support from the private sector. Busi­nesses and phil­an­throp­ists had many options for support­ing citizens’ voting rights, and it is excit­ing that so many of them rose to the occa­sion. More than 1,900 compan­ies, organ­ized as the Time To Vote coali­tion, pledged to ensure their staff had time avail­able to cast a ballot. The Civic Alli­ance, another nonpar­tisan group of busi­nesses work­ing to promote parti­cip­a­tion in demo­cracy, advoc­ated for safe access to the polls, conveyed their trust in elec­tion offi­cials, and impressed upon Amer­ic­ans the need for patience as every vote was coun­ted. Members of the belea­guered restaur­ant industry stepped up to serve hot meals to voters wait­ing in long lines at polls. And of course there was the NBA, which at the urging of its play­ers turned 23 arenas into voting centers or polling loca­tions.

But above all, Amer­ic­ans showed up to vote. This year, in the face of a pandemic, the elect­or­ate broke turnout records, reach­ing 66.7 percent turnout — the highest it’s been in a century.

We should all feel relieved that we could see the results of our hard work on Elec­tion Day and proud that so many Amer­ic­ans were not deterred. It was smart to manage expect­a­tions and be prepared for the worst, but we should never forget that Amer­ic­ans deserve better. While our worst fears were aver­ted, there were still multiple fail­ures, includ­ing voter suppres­sion in many forms.

Voter intim­id­a­tion

Voter intim­id­a­tion is illegal, but there were numer­ous cred­ible reports that intim­id­a­tion occurred — and at higher rates than in past years. The reports came from all over the map, includ­ing in Flor­idaNorth Caro­linaGeor­giaNew York, and Pennsylvania. The intim­id­a­tion took many forms, from bran­dish­ing guns, to using trucks to block entrances, to scream­ing viol­ent, racist threats at voters.

Under­prepared primar­ies

All 50 states plus DC conduc­ted a primary, runoff, or special elec­tion in the first six months of the pandemic. Voters waited in exceed­ingly long lines in many states, includ­ing Geor­giaNevadaMary­landPennsylvania, and DC. Wiscon­sin oper­ated a mere five polling places in racially-diverse Milwau­kee, and there were prob­lems in the vote-by-mail process: 9,000 reques­ted absentee ballots were never sent and over 23,000 ballots were never coun­ted. Of course, the pandemic caught every­one off-guard, but it need not have. If the exper­i­ence has taught us anything, it’s that emer­gency prepared­ness must be a cent­ral focus of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion going forward.

Viol­ent threats against elec­tions offi­cials

Elec­ted offi­cials have the thank­less job of running our elec­tions when they are under-resourced and under-suppor­ted. But worse than being under-appre­ci­ated, elec­tion offi­cials and work­ers have faced threats in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, Arizona, Vermont, and Geor­gia. The harass­ment and threats of viol­ence moved Geor­gia voting system offi­cial Gabriel Ster­ling to warn that if the base­less accus­a­tions of fraud continue, “someone’s going to get killed,” and he called on Pres­id­ent Trump and Geor­gi­a’s two senat­ors to denounce threats.

Congres­sional inac­tion

Despite the chal­lenges faced by the major­ity of states in conduct­ing elec­tions during a pandemic — and the know­ledge that communit­ies of color were being hit the hard­est by Covid-19 and would likely also be most severely impacted by under­per­form­ing elec­tion systems — Congress provided far too little in the way of support. The states needed an estim­ated $4 billion in order to prop­erly ensure elec­tions were free, fair, safe, and secure, but the federal govern­ment provided only a tenth of that.

Further­more, while a House stim­u­lus bill would have required states to make certain tempor­ary changes to their voting systems in response to the pandemic, the final version provided no such mandate nor even guid­ance to states about best prac­tices. As a result of the fail­ure to act, states neces­sar­ily respon­ded with a patch­work of rules and last-minute changes that created confu­sion and incon­sist­ency for voters.

Frivol­ous lawsuits

An unpre­ced­en­ted number of elec­tion-related lawsuits have been filed in 2020 — more than 300 since the start of the pandemic alone. Although many of these suits were filed to increase voter access in the wake of the pandemic, the more recent flood of lawsuits over­whelm­ingly involved claims not backed up by evid­ence and whose legal argu­ments are clearly invalid. Since Elec­tion Day, more than 50 such lawsuits have been filed in every swing state that went blue, includ­ing Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wiscon­sin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Geor­gia.

These lawsuits too often targeted areas with large popu­la­tions of Black voters. They are not about voting rights, but instead blatantly ask courts to disen­fran­chise thou­sands or even millions of voters. Many are fueled by conspir­acy theor­ies and seem to be motiv­ated by a desire to depress the voting strength of communit­ies of color, cast doubt, and sow discord, more than by any real­istic hope of succeed­ing on the merits. Indeed, these lawsuits have uniformly failed to do anything other than perpetu­ate conspir­acy theor­ies and the myth of voter fraud, and they func­tion as racist dog whistles.

Misin­form­a­tion and disin­form­a­tion

2020 was hard enough without voters having to hear misin­form­a­tion and disin­form­a­tion from vari­ous quar­ters. Voters were faced with decept­ive calls during Texas’s primary in March. Voters of color in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and New York were targeted by robocalls convey­ing false inform­a­tion around how their data would be shared through vote by mail. Right-wing activ­ists targeted minor­ity voters in Detroit and other cities with calls that discour­aged them from voting, and Black and Latino voters from Flor­ida to Arizona were targeted in disin­form­a­tion efforts seek­ing to divide and discour­age the elect­or­ate.

Moreover, bad actors, with the support of polit­ical influ­en­cers, continue lying to the public about the elec­tions process and results. On the inter­na­tional front, U.S. intel­li­gence uncovered foreign attempts to inter­fere in the 2020 primar­ies and the general elec­tion, includ­ing Russian efforts to reelect Pres­id­ent Trump.

Our demo­cracy survived some enorm­ous threats. But we should not be satis­fied with such a low bar for success. Instead, we need to make the neces­sary changes at the national, state, and local level to give every eligible voter the abil­ity to be heard, even during chaotic times. Let’s start with pres­sur­ing Congress to get to work and approve pro-voter reforms. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act and H.R. 1 (the For the People Act) should be at the top of the list. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act would safe­guard Amer­ic­ans against racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting laws by restor­ing the full protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act, which was essen­tially gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. The For the People Act’s compre­hens­ive pack­age of voting reforms would revital­ize Amer­ican demo­cracy, making voting easier and more access­ible, partic­u­larly for Black and brown voters being shut out by current policies, and strengthen protec­tions against disin­form­a­tion and voter intim­id­a­tion. 

Our system has success­fully held elec­tions during crises before, and it’s crucial that govern­ment offi­cials do their part to ensure this is the case going forward. We need to learn from where we came up short — paying close atten­tion to those communit­ies who are tradi­tion­ally suppressed and blocked — and do even better next time.