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Protecting the Vote from a Pandemic

There are 100 days to the election. Here are five voting risks to address.

Last Updated: July 24, 2020
Published: July 24, 2020
Drew Angerer/Getty

One hundred days from Sunday, Americans will vote. It’s always best to be optimistic, to look on the bright side. Things have a tendency to work themselves out. But there are growing signs that without urgent national action, a chaotic 2020 election could leave the voices of millions unheard and our country riven.

The 2018 midterm saw the highest turnout in over a century, and there was every reason to expect a record this year. The frightening reality, however, is that the United States is unprepared to hold a safe and credible election in the face of the coronavirus. Just as inaction in January and February led to the present health crisis, inaction now will lead to an election meltdown in November.

As even the president now (sometimes) admits, the Covid-19 pandemic will not “go away” by November. Indeed, it is getting worse. Nearly 140,000 Americans have died and the number of confirmed cases is surging. The first wave continues to swell in much of the country, and a second wave could come with the flu season. There’s every reason to think that the disease will dominate the weeks before Election Day.

Six months of primaries have previewed what could go wrong. In Wisconsin, major reductions in the number of polling places forced primary voters to wait in hours-long lines spanning several blocks just to cast a ballot. The same happened in Georgia, where malfunctioning voting machines and a shortage of experienced poll workers made a bad election worse. The lines there were longest in Black communities. In Kentucky, videos that circulated widely on social media showed voters pounding on the doors of Louisville’s sole polling place, which were locked before all voters in line had been let in. For perspective, the city has a population of approximately 600,000 people.  

The general election — with many more voters and brutal partisan combat — could be much worse. It will also have far graver consequences.

Here are five risks the Brennan Center is worried about over the next 100 days:

1. Inadequate funds. Above all, to shift how we run elections by November, states and counties need money. Only the federal government has the ability to provide funding at this scale. States have balanced-budget requirements and face crushing health and social service demands to boot. Earlier in the year, Congress provided $400 million in election assistance to the states. But that’s only one-tenth of the $4 billion needed to retrofit our voting infrastructure. In May, the House passed a major coronavirus relief package that includes the remaining $3.6 billion. So far, though, the Senate has not acted on it. We await details on the Republican counterproposal. But key party leaders, including Sen. Roy Blunt, chair of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, acknowledge some funds are needed.  

2. Messy vote by mail. Most Americans now expect to be able to vote absentee in November, especially if the pandemic still rages. That’s hardly a radical notion: In the last two federal elections, about one in four people voted that way. It was never particularly controversial.

But we’ve never had such a flood of interest in vote by mail. Too many states are simply not yet ready to make it work. Wisconsin’s system buckled under the weight of voters wanting to vote that way. (In a typical primary, about 250,000 Wisconsinites would vote by mail; this year, 1.1 million did.) States must be ready to send out applications to all registered voters.

Some states are working to make it harder to participate. In Alabama, people who want to vote absentee already must have a notary attest to their ballot — rather comically undermining the public health reasons why an elderly person, say, might want to vote remotely. In Texas, the governor went to court to insist that only people who are actually sick could vote absentee. Opportunities for political mischief are legion.

Sending out and processing millions of mail-in ballots and applications takes time, people power, and money — scarce resources as tax revenues decline and budget shortfalls deepen. Reports have surfaced across the country of tens of thousands of unfulfilled mail ballot requests. And according to a recent analysis by NPR, states have tossed out at least 65,000 mail ballots this year for arriving past the deadline, even if they were postmarked in time.

3. Inadequate safe in-person voting opportunities. Many simply can’t or don’t want to vote by mail. Minority communities, especially, have reason to be wary; absentee ballots from Black voters are rejected at a rate far higher than the average, for example. States must make ample early voting available, as well as in-person Election Day options for those who need them.

Many jurisdictions have been forced to shut down polling places because too few poll workers are willing to show up. (During its primary, Milwaukee went from 180 polling places to just five. In Kentucky, dozens of polling places were shuttered, though officials did arrange for the vast Louisville convention center to be opened for voting.) Where will polling places close? Already, Black and Latino voters are far more likely than white voters to wait on long lines on Election Day. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, has made it much easier for officials in states with a history of racial discrimination to act with impunity.

4. Misunderstood counting rules. Election night is a hallowed civic ritual. Soon after 11:00 p.m. on the East Coast, we usually can expect the breathless anchors to announce a winner. Not this year. We will need to make sure that all valid ballots are counted, and, even under the best of circumstances, mail-in votes take longer to count. The news media must get used to the idea that taking days to count the ballots is not evidence of fraud but a sign that election officials are being careful.

5. Fake news. This election will be held amid a maelstrom of misinformation. Already, President Donald Trump has begun to falsely claim that the election is “rigged” and that mail-in ballots are inherently fraudulent. (This may turn out to be a colossal political misfire, since there’s evidence that Republican voters may fail to vote because of Trump’s scaremongering.)

All this could combine in a toxic stew. Imagine long lines. Millions of ballots rejected. Militias with guns. QAnon supporters spouting conspiracies. Russia making mischief. And a president tweeting “FRAUD” even before the ballots have been counted.

One more flashing warning light: The courts seem unlikely to step up. Trial judges and appeals courts have sought to protect the right to vote. But four times since April, the Supreme Court allowed states to get away with making it harder for some Americans to vote. Some rulings were unsigned, but all seem likely to have been split along political lines. The Supreme Court that gave us Shelby County and Citizens United will not save us.

Ominously, election problems could disenfranchise mostly those Americans hardest hit by the pandemic. According to recent data, Black and Latino Americans are three times as likely as white Americans to become infected with the coronavirus and twice as likely to die from it. Traditional barriers to voting, which disproportionately harm people of color, could compound the dangers of the pandemic to form a lethal dose of vote suppression.

There’s still time to do better. We need a full national effort.

State and local officials must get ready. Happily, election supervisors from both parties are eager to get it done right. The farther away from Washington, often, the less partisan the issue seems to be.

Officials are working hard and in good faith to prepare for November. But states lack the resources to complete the enormous task at hand. Even expanding absentee voting — an effective way to ensure the safety and security of the election — is proving to be an extraordinary challenge.

Congress must step up and quickly fund our elections. State officials must recruit poll workers, especially younger people, who face lower risks to their health; ensure that ballot applications are sent out; and prepare to carefully count the vote. The media should educate citizens about how to vote — and that a delay in the results is not a sign of misconduct. Private businesses can help recruit election workers and offer sites for polling places. (And, yes, it would help if the president stopped sending out lying tweets and racist declarations.)

If we do all of these things over the next one hundred days, we can run an election that all Americans will consider free, fair, secure, safe — and legitimate.