Election Day 2020 is less than 100 days away, and “trouble ahead” warnings continue to flash brightly. COVID-19 has pushed states and voters to desire an alternative to in-person voting, the method used by 76 percent of the 140,114,502 citizens who cast a presidential ballot in 2016. The most likely substitute, voting by mail (absentee voting), has overtaxed the struggling US Postal Service and underfunded state election officials in recent primaries. Our ability to fix the problems we know we have is uncertain in the short time left before we choose our next president, Congress, and new state and local leaders.
According to Richard (“Rick”) Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine, “Many states are not prepared for either the flood of absentee ballots coming because of the virus or the difficulties in recruiting poll workers and otherwise getting safe in-person voting up and running in November…. More than a month after New York held its primary elections, at least one Democratic race—between Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) and Suraj Patel, a former Obama administration staffer—is still not finalized. New York’s Board of Elections has yet to count 65,000 ballots in the contest.”
Many voters are not prepared to cast their mail-in ballots properly. During recent primaries, thousands of ballots went uncounted because they were filled out improperly. In other cases, voters did not take into consideration slower mail delivery times which resulted in their ballots not reaching election officials in time to be included in the results.
Local state and local officials struggle to find the resources to solve these problems. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice says that it would take at least $4 billion in additional funding for local election officials to enact the necessary changes—resources that state and local governments, fiscally strapped by the economic impact of the pandemic, just don’t have. At the federal level, funding remains in limbo. The Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives has included $3.6 billion for election support in its HEROES act, but the Senate Republican HEALS Act bill includes no new funding to fill the gap.
Further roiling the waters is the ongoing political battle over voter suppression that has pit conservatives against progressives in a string of heated legislative and court fights over who can vote and how elections should be conducted. As Laleh Ispahani, the US managing director for Open Society, a network of nonprofits founded by billionaire George Soros, said in comments reported by the Associated Press, “The pandemic has created a state of emergency. Donors who haven’t typically taken on these issues now have an interest.”
Open Society’s focus has on making sure every voter can vote and have their ballot counted. They are pushing to ease rules that make voting by mail more complicated and to offer flexibility so ballots mailed on time are counted even if there is postal delay. They also support voter education efforts to help those new to voting by mail cast their ballots properly.
Opposing them are several conservative nonprofits, including Judicial Watch, the Honest Elections Project, True the Vote, and the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which are fighting efforts to make voting by mail easier.
“A substantial portion of the financing comes from Donors Trust,” say Brian Slodysko and Thomas Beaumont, reporting for AP. “The organization helps wealthy patrons invest in causes they care about while sheltering their identities from the public.”
Sean Noble, a Republican strategist in Arizona, told The Hill:
We won’t have an Election Night this year. Every important race is going to take days or weeks to decide. It’s going to have people on edge and it’s going to be a complete mess. County recorders are going to be under a microscope and almost none of them are prepared for that kind of scrutiny.
Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina, put the meaning of that disarray in stark terms when he told The Hill, “Unless there is a significantly clear and almost super-majority outcome on one side, namely the Biden side, then things will deteriorate quickly, I’m afraid. The president’s recent comments provide no reassurance that the outcome, especially one against him, would not be called into question.”
As NPQ noted in an earlier look at the 2020 election, “There is still time to prevent that outcome if the sanctity of the electoral process can overcome partisan interest. Is that too much to ask?” But day by day, time is running out.—Martin Levine