Election experts warn of November disaster

©Stateline.org

JOHN SPINK/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

WASHINGTON — After a presidential primary season plagued by long lines, confusion over mail-in voting and malfunctioning equipment, election experts are increasingly concerned about the resiliency of American democracy in the face of a global pandemic.

With four months until the presidential election, the litany of unresolved issues could block some voters from casting ballots and lead many citizens to distrust the outcome of one of the most pivotal races of their lifetimes.

There is widespread concern among voting activists, experts and elections officials that it will take further federal investment in local election systems, massive voter education campaigns and election administrators’ ingenuity to prevent a disaster come November.

“The coronavirus has really laid bare the cracks in our system,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.

Even before the pandemic, Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said he was worried about the state of U.S. elections. He warned in his recent book “Election Meltdown” about the effects that misinformation, administrative incompetence and voter suppression efforts would have on the 2020 presidential election.

Now, to add to all those problems, there is COVID-19, which further destabilizes voting. He, like many other election experts interviewed by Stateline, said he is worried about November.

“The best-case scenario for us is that key elections are not close,” he said, “because we are going to have problems.”

The troubles ahead of the presidential election include the inconsistent mail-in ballot system, voter safety at polling locations and lingering security gaps targeted by malicious foreign and domestic groups emboldened by the 2016 presidential election.

Millions of voters turned to mail-in ballots as a safe alternative to voting in person during the pandemic-riddled primary. But in states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and in the District of Columbia, thousands of voters requested absentee ballots from local election officials and never received them.

States were unprepared for the record numbers of absentee ballot requests, said Hannah Fried, national campaign director of All Voting is Local, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Leadership Conference Education Fund that helps register people of color and young people.

In many of those states, officials found it difficult to go from producing and processing thousands of mail-in ballots to contending with millions of them because of COVID-19. They lacked the training, equipment, supply chain and staff to handle the increase, she said.

Local officials must set up ways to get ballots to voters, provide for their easy return and allow voters to know their ballots will be counted, she said.

“It was overwhelming for officials and voters alike in the beginning,” Fried said. “But November is different, and we have time.”

But training and equipment cost money, said Cris Landa, program director at the election security group Verified Voting. While Congress allocated $400 million under the CARES Act for election administration earlier this year, it is unclear whether it will allocate more funds before the presidential election. But money must come soon, Landa said, or jurisdictions won’t have time to implement changes.

“Elections are woefully underfunded as is,” she said. “The need is there for more election funding. It’s hard not to paint such a stark, worrisome picture.”

Voters in some states had to contend with other barriers to voting by mail, such as requirements for a witness signature or voter ID — difficult tasks during a pandemic when people are confined to their homes. Proponents say these measures prevent voter fraud.

In Oklahoma, Republican leaders enacted a law that requires absentee ballots be notarized, while Republican leaders in Tennessee and Texas have fought efforts to make the coronavirus pandemic a legitimate excuse for requesting an absentee ballot.

County clerks have rejected absentee ballots at higher rates this election season in some communities of color, sometimes for reasons as simple as a mismatched or absent signature on the ballot envelope, said Kristen Clark, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She’s trying to figure out why.

“Something is not right,” she said.

Voters unable or unwilling to vote by mail turned to traditional polling places. And when they got there, many were met by more barriers.

The lines in the Atlanta area stretched for more than four hours in some majority-Black locations on the June 9 primary day. New voting machines were not working, poll workers had not been trained to use the new equipment, polling locations opened late and precincts ran out of paper backups.

In the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, voters with disabilities, limited English proficiency and unreliable mail service rely on polling places to cast their ballots.

But polling locations were cut throughout the country, while thousands of poll workers refused to serve because of health concerns.

In Wisconsin, local election officials drastically reduced the number of polling locations across the state. The city of Milwaukee had five polling locations — down from 182 in 2016. A Brennan Center analysis shows this contributed to reduced voter turnout.

Like Georgia, many states also debuted new voting systems this year, which led to confusion when poll workers, untrained because of the pandemic, had to navigate unfamiliar voting machines. Already before the pandemic, equipment issues caused massive disruptions in this year’s Iowa caucuses and California primary.

And then there’s the issue of safety: How do election officials keep polling places clean during a pandemic, especially as protective equipment is often hard to come by as states and businesses reopen across the country?

Some election officials have gotten creative. Harris County, Texas, will provide each voter with a finger cover to use on voting machines and a face mask if they need one. The Houston-area county of 2.4 million registered voters also will equip poll workers with masks, face shields and disinfectant wipes.

“Putting these safeguards in place has been no simple task,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, “but they’re necessary.”

Hollins is one of several local and state election officials backing a new report by the nonprofit Voter Protection Corps on how to run safe in-person voting options ahead of November. It recommends not consolidating neighborhood polling places, recruiting and training poll workers and expanding early voting.

Safeguarding the health of voters isn’t the only security issue facing elections, however.

The threat of foreign interference in U.S. elections remains, including disinformation and hacking campaigns by the Russian government and others. Local election offices remain susceptible to email phishing attempts and website hacks that could penetrate state voter registration databases and other critical systems.

And the coronavirus adds security challenges. New online state systems for requesting absentee ballots could be vulnerable without proper protections, said Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Meanwhile, most election officials have been working remotely since the outbreak, using home networks that lack the firewalls of their offices and are more exposed to cybersecurity threats.

Federal security officials, from the National Security Agency to the National Guard, will work with state and local election officials throughout the coming months, providing on-the-ground assistance and recommending practices to avoid a potentially disastrous security breach.

Misinformation remains one of the biggest threats to U.S. elections, Hovland said. Clever editing of an online video or false information spread throughout social media could reach vast audiences.

“Any of those situations is ripe for disinformation or misinformation,” he said. “Unfortunately, 2020 was never going to be an easy election year. And now with COVID, we’re facing unprecedented challenges.”

Another factor that could damage voter confidence is a delay in reporting election results. Because of the expected volume of absentee ballots, voters should not expect complete race results on Election Night; it will take much longer to process and count votes. Election Night might turn into Election Week.

Delays in election results are not necessarily troublesome or nefarious, said UC Irvine’s Hasen. It shows election officials take the count seriously, he said. The question is how voters will react to those delays.

Hasen worries both domestic and foreign groups will try to undermine legitimacy and take advantage of delays. Malicious actors may spread false information about polling place locations, ways to register to vote, voting hours and the ability to vote online.

A candidate may, for example, declare victory before results are completely counted, he said, potentially delegitimizing the eventual results of the election among supporters.

Disinformation and misinformation targeted communities of color during the 2016 presidential campaign, and as much is expected again this year, said LaShawn Warren, executive vice president of government affairs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

In anticipation of this threat, several organizations like hers have pressured social media companies to add new warnings and labels on malicious or false election-related content. It is the responsibility of these companies, she said, to oversee what is being placed on their platforms.

“You don’t want to add to confusion,” she said. “You want to add a level of transparency and clarity. The way they have rolled out these policies is not thoughtful and rooted in truth.”

While Twitter has begun labeling false tweets, Facebook recently announced it would label all election-related content, without noting whether the content is false. Facebook says its policies protect free speech, but Warren said the company does not do enough to quell falsehoods, potentially keeping people from voting.

President Donald Trump’s continued and unsubstantiated attacks on mail-in voting, claiming without evidence that it would lead to massive voter fraud, also sows doubt in the election, she said.

While election experts are sounding the alarm ahead of November, they say there is still time for federal, state and local election authorities to prevent a disastrous presidential election.

U.S. elections are fragile, said Pérez at the Brennan Center. It will take the election administrators hustling for resources, planning and looking for solutions. It will take residents offering their storefronts for polling places, volunteering to be poll workers and helping register their neighbors to vote, she said.

“We are in the middle of a real challenge,” she said, “but there is a lot we can do between now and November to minimize harmful outcomes.”

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