From all perspectives, left and right, the 2020 election will be historic. For some, it will provide an opportunity to reaffirm the president’s politics and policies; for others, it will be the moment to repudiate them and turn the nation toward a better course. Whatever the outcome, passions will be high. For there to be any hope that the results will be viewed as fair even by those who support the losing side, the public will need to trust that the election has been fair and not manipulated, that all eligible voters were able to vote, and that the their ballots were accurately counted. Otherwise, we risk a further loss of faith in our democratic system.
There’s reason to worry we won’t meet that test. The actions of those responsible for safeguarding our electoral system are not reassuring. Too many election officials appear to be making decisions from a partisan perspective and ignoring the need to protect the nation’s reputation for being able to decide heated elections fairly.
Ensuring that every eligible citizen who wishes to vote can is critical. Making that less likely are the actions of state election officials aimed at solving the nonexistent problem of voter fraud. Just last week, a Wisconsin judge approved the removal of 200,000 names from that state’s voter rolls. Their counterparts in Georgia just a day later announced they were in the process of removing another 300,000 from their state’s rolls. When the count of voters with cancelled registrations falls more on the side of those expected to vote against those editing the lists than those who might support them, trust is harder to come by.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in a statement reported by the Washington Post, gives the logic that underscores these actions wherever they occur: “Proper list maintenance is not only required by long-standing laws but is also important in maintaining the integrity and smooth functioning of elections.” In other words, voters are not being purged; voter lists are just being cleaned up.
Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program sees the issue of trust as critical. As she tells the Post, “Are there systematic large-scale purges that are happening with sloppy data, without public notice, too close to an election and without a mechanism for correcting it if there were mistakes? Purges, if done wrong, can disenfranchise eligible Americans. And purges are happening at scarily high rate.”
A recent Truthout examination of Georgia’s voting system offers further reason to be worried. Days after the results of the 2000 presidential election were finalized—results that had hung in the balance for days as Florida counted and recounted votes trying to decipher thousands of “hanging chads”—states began to modernize their voting machinery and systems to promote accuracy and security. In doing so, many may have made the situation worse.
In Georgia, a state commission charged with protecting the sanctity of the election received recommendations from experts:
Cybersecurity community and election integrity activists…strongly urged them to change to a hand-marked, optical-scan paper ballot system with risk-limiting audits (and one machine per precinct for accessibility compliance). Cybersecurity experts advised that any computer that comes between a voter and her/his vote introduces the possibility of hacking or error. Machines malfunction. Audits cannot be performed without trustworthy recorded votes.
Like many states, chose to go in a different direction and ignore this guidance. They chose a system which did not meet the experts’ standards.
These acts arrive in an environment already unsettled by worries about the effectiveness of foreign interference, during the term of a president who continues to invite interference, in a society slowly learning the power of social media to disinform and sway voters.
The 2016 election results hinged on a small number of voters swinging close elections in states that held enough electoral college power to determine who would move into the White House. The closeness of the election raises the bar. Officials should care about more than mere mechanics. If winning the race is more important than how the results were reached, we will be in for years of rancor and government stagnation. No one should find that acceptable.—Martin Levine