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Analysis

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
voting
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.