The November 2020 elections would have been fraught with problems and controversy in any case, given the country’s wildly overheated partisan climate. The coronavirus pandemic on top of it will give those looking for extra excitement twice their money’s worth on Election Day.
Recent Democratic presidential primaries offered a preview of what can be expected as election boards experiment with mail-in ballots and other methods to reduce the danger of spreading the coronavirus at crowded polling places.
In Maryland, Georgia, Wisconsin and Nevada, the working adjective was “chaotic,” as election staff shortages combined with absentee ballot mechanisms gone awry, with the result being long lines and frustrated voters.
Consider the state of Wisconsin, where about 14,000 absentee voters never received their ballots, which were either never sent out or which arrived at the wrong address.
This may not seem like such a large number in such a large country as ours. Indeed, in most places, things went fairly smoothly. In Maryland, where “extensive voter outreach” was conducted to ensure efficiency, only five percent of ballots failed to reach their correct addressees, according to CNN. The figure isn’t all that encouraging.
Massive glitches won’t be necessary to generate electoral mayhem on Tuesday, November 3.
In 2016, President Donald Trump won Wisconsin by only 23,000 votes. All it would take to tilt the presidential outcome this year would be a 1 percent failure to deliver absentee ballots to the voters in battleground states.
If that happens — meaning, if the voting process falls short of 99 percent efficiency — we could be in for a contested election that would make the 2000 Bush-Gore battle over Florida look like a polite debate over arcane academic matters such as “hanging chads.”
Or, as University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald, who studies elections, told The Week, “We’re just going to have a catastrophe.”
Besides the normal inefficiencies of the postal service, vulnerability to fraud is not, as some insist, a baseless fear. The conservative Heritage Foundation reported that about 150 persons have been convicted of absentee voter fraud since 2000.
Moreover, as the foundation’s Daily Signal points out, “voting by mail expands the chain of events involved in casting a ballot and radically expands the opportunities for fraudsters to tamper with the process.” In other words, protecting people from coronavirus by remote voting will expose the electorate all the more to voting irregularities.
Then, too, counting mail-in ballots takes time. In Idaho, Maryland and Pennsylvania, votes were still being counted more than a week after the election date. Imagine such delays in November.
With all this in mind, lawmakers in Washington have been working to provide the funding necessary to enable election officials around the country to meet the challenge.
A COVID response bill passed by the House of Representatives in May would allocate $3.6 billion to states, to help defray the costs of printing ballots, buying envelopes, and paying for mailings, cybersecurity and pandemic precautions.
However, the Senate is not expected to take up the measure until late July, and there is concern that debate may delay passage.
Meanwhile, local officials wring their hands (with sanitizer, of course). Lynn Bailey, the board of elections executive director in Augusta, Georgia, was quoted by NPR as saying that Georgia’s June 9 primary cost about 60% more than a normal election would have in her jurisdiction, because of pandemic-related adjustments.
“We had about a 35% turnout rate in our jurisdiction in this past election, and we know that in November that number will likely double,” Bailey said. “We can only expect therefore that our budget will likely double over what we spent this time, if not more.”
“Election officials don’t have nearly the resources to make the preparations and changes they need to make to run an election in a pandemic,” Wendy Weiser, head of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Associated Press. “We are seeing this all over the place.”
Time and money are both urgently needed to purchase the equipment and materials for November.
BlueCrest, a Pitney Bowes spinoff, sells high-volume sorting machines that handle up to 50,000 ballot envelopes per hour. Rick Becerra, a vice president at the company, said he’s telling officials that if they want one (they cost on average $475,000 each), “now is the time” to place their order.
Democracy is an expensive, time-consuming and exasperating process. And there is no Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back on any voting method. Whether it’s old-fashioned paper ballots, lever machines, punch cards, touch screen or mail-in, there are inevitable risks of technical error, human error, and that traditional standby — vote stealing.
A gallery of uncertainties ring the November elections. But one thing is certain: foul-ups there will be. The main thing is to keep calm, avoid knee-jerk accusations of malfeasance and conspiracy-mongering. If people can do that, American democracy will survive even the challenges of 2020.
In the meantime, the Senate must act, and soon.