With the world’s economy grinding to a standstill because of the coronavirus (COVID-19), many citizens would be forgiven for forgetting that an election for US president is currently underway. We were in the middle of deciding who would replace Donald Trump when one of the worst pandemics in contemporary history hit.
Many people are worried about how this virus will impact the presidential election. The Republican Party already has a long history of voter suppression, and there is a legitimate fear that this crisis will worsen our already deteriorating electoral processes.
Will the virus depress voter turnout as people decide to stay home rather than brave the dangers of the disease?
Worse still, will Republicans take advantage of this moment to weaken voter participation?
Doing Nothing Is Almost Worse
There is much about COVID-19 for which we only have partial information (i.e. the rate of infection, mortality, how long it lasts on certain surfaces, etc.). Still, something about which we are confident is that the highest risk of catching it is when you are close to someone who is infected. This risk is why “social distancing,” maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from other people, has become the most prolific tool in our arsenal to combat it.
As you are probably frustratingly aware of, at this point, slowing the virus requires that we keep our distance from each other.
The way elections are set up in most of the United States, however, requires being around other people. Many voters not only vote in person, but their ability to vote in person is tied to a specific voting precinct. You have to go to a particular church, recreational center, retirement community, etc. to physically cast your ballot.
In the past, this flawed process created bottlenecks. When a deficit in polling station volunteers or voting machines happened at a specific precinct, it often led to congestion and long lines.
If there is one thing that cannot happen during a pandemic, it is long lines.
There was a shortage of polling volunteers across the country BEFORE this pandemic struck. It was not uncommon during 2018 to see examples of long lines from precincts that did not have the resources to keep up with demand.
Long lines are a problem for democracy because they create a chilling effect. Some people walk away on election day because they cannot afford the two, three, or four hours necessary to cast their ballot at a congested precinct.
If ignored in 2020, we have every indication that this deficit of precinct resources will only get worse. People over the age of 60 are a demographic that has consistently volunteered at polling stations in past elections cycles — a demographic that is very susceptible to COVID-19. This danger means that a lot of past volunteers are and will continue to stay home, understandably.
As of this writing, Wisconsin is still going forward with its primary on April 7th, but it does not have enough people to man all the necessary precincts. Many polling stations will undoubtedly have to be shuttered. As Neil Albrecht, director of the Milwaukee Election Commission wrote in a filing in March:
“Given the inability to train new poll workers, it is virtually certain that we will lack sufficient poll workers to staff the polling locations across the city.”
Now there are alternatives to in-person voting (i.e., mail and online), but they are by no means a panacea. Already states are being flooded by requests for absentee ballots, and, like with in-person polling stations, it’s not clear they have the resources and knowledge to process them all. As Albrecht continues to write in their briefing:
“…likewise [we] lack the requisite number of staff members to process absentee ballots at the central count location.”
When Congress passed its new $2 trillion stimulus package on March 25th, only $400 million of that was allocated for election assistance. This number is, by all accounts, inadequate. The Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that at least $2 billion will be needed to make the necessary adjustments.
State and local governments have an unprecedented set of challenges ahead of them, and that comes with a hefty price tag. They will not only have to increase their orders for postage and mail ballots as they prepare for millions of new requests, but they will also have to build new legal and digital systems from scratch in a short amount of time.
That’s a huge endeavor.
Many of us remember the disastrous rollout for the infamous Shadow app during the Iowa caucus. It was supposed to help the state party more easily keep track of the number of votes coming in on election night, but instead, it failed to work correctly. There were a lot of conspiracy theories circulating for why this happened, but according to reporting from the New York Times, the reality is far less spectacular: the application was built in just two months and was never tested on a large scale.
A lot of talk around COVID-19 has been focused on voter suppression (and we will get to that), but it’s important to highlight that one of the biggest threats is simply Republicans ensuring the government does nothing. If Congress does not adequately fund the 2020 election cycle, then states across the country are going to be in a very similar position as Iowa was in its primary as they build new applications and update their electoral processes on a shoestring budget.
We could have dozens, if not hundreds of Shadow app situations on our hands, as hundreds of thousands of votes are discounted simply because we cannot count them.
Even If Well Funded, The Task Will Be Monumental
The most common solution electoral experts have listed for this crisis is to drastically increase the number of absentee or mail-in ballots. States such as Alaska and Wyoming have already switched their 2020 primaries over to mail only because its the surest way to continue their elections while minimizing in-person contact. This reduced exposure is one of the reasons Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has argued that we need to switch over to a vote by mail system as well.
Even if this system were to become the new normal, however, a mail-in system requires that some massive logistical hurdles be overcome. At a minimum, states must have:
- Enough ballots printed, and enough time to send them
- An up-to-date list of all their citizens
- Streamlined digital voter registration
- The ability to handle edge cases (i.e., people who cannot send ballots by mail)
- The capacity to count the influx of mail-in ballots
These requirements sound simple, but, because (most of) our country is not set up for a mail-in system on this scale, they will be hard to achieve in such a short amount of time. Millions of paper ballots will have to be printed, and some level of customization will be required. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act (a federal law that must be followed across the country) requires that ballots be printed in many voters’ preferred language. This variance adds to the cost. The Brennan Center’s estimate for printing and postage alone starts at $467 million — well above the current congressional allocation for $400 million.
States will have to send these ballots to their entire voting-eligible population (VEP), which means ballots being sent out unprompted and on time. States will have to send ballots out as a default if they want to avoid dramatically lower voter turnout.
This process already happens in states such as Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Hawaii. Oregon, for example, tries to mail ballots out 14 to 18 days before the election. Ballots are mailed several weeks in advance to leave time for voters to request a replacement, if necessary. If this process doesn’t happen automatically and efficiently, then it will suppress voter turnout as people struggle to get their ballots on an ad-hoc basis.
This coordination is currently, literally impossible because states have subpar “voter rolls,” which are the lists of residents eligibles to vote in an election. These are state residents that have met specific requirements (e.g., 18+, not in prison, etc.), and often, have registered with their state so they can vote.
Problematically, many states do not have a coordinated way to track demographic changes in a timely way, and it impairs their ability to keep accurate voter rolls. Some state departments are not set up to share information with other departments — let alone other states — and it creates a lag in information. This leads to duplicate or redundant files that are caused whenever information isn’t updated quickly enough (i.e., someone has moved, died, etc.), which is why you will hear about election officials periodically updating or “purging” their voter rolls. The system is not tracking inactivity well enough, and they do not have processes in place to cross-reference this information efficiently.
There are exceptions: Oregon voters are automatically opted-in to voter registration when they enter the state’s system, usually through the state’s Department of Moter Vehicles (DMV). Citizens have to manually opt-out if they wish to, making the process far less labor-intensive on the individual. This process is far easier than most current state systems, which require citizens to manually re-register if they fail to meet certain arbitrary requirements, even if they remain within the same state, or in rare cases, the same township.
Automatic registration does not solve all of the accounting problems with voter rolls. California hastily implemented automatic registration in 2018, and an audit revealed the creation of over 80,000 duplicate files. Reporting indicated that the system was not tested properly before rollout, which again, is why funding and proper planning are an essential foundation of any new system.
Election officials adjusting voter rolls in an opt-in system, however, is far worse. It leads to more errors, and, as we shall see later, moral hazards.
States will have to do what they can to make sure their voter rolls are accurate so that they can send all the necessary ballots. This will involve creating ways for registration and ballot requests to be done remotely, on a massive scale both in- and out-of-state. There is no official account yet, but we are seeing a lot of anecdotal reports of people who have been displaced by this virus. Thousands have temporarily moved far away to take care of loved ones, or are stranded out-of-state in voluntary quarantine. Texas, for example, has passed an executive order requiring that many out of state travelers self-quarantine for two weeks.
States will have to build or improve portals and applications that account for this reality. It will be a substantial financial and technical problem, but also an adjustment of laws. Arkansas, for example, currently prevents people from requesting an absentee ballot unless they have a physical disability, are a member of the US armed forces, are temporarily living out of state, or (and you’ll love this one) are unavoidably absent from their polling site on Election Day. Laws like this were impractical and manipulative before the pandemic; now, they threaten to bring down our democracy.
We need our mail-in capacity to be expanded yesterday, and yet, even if we manage this necessary task, there will still be hurdles.
On top of making sure that mail-in procedures work, there is the reality that some people will not be able to vote by mail. Members of Indian country have historically had minimal mail access and often rely on PO boxes that are miles away from their homes, many of which are located in rural areas with limited WiFi access. This creates a lot of barriers for both voter registration and the timely receipt and drop off of ballots.
There is also the issue of homelessness. In 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated the number of homeless to be around 553,000. Some people might callously dismiss this group as insignificant, but not only would they be cruel, they’d be wrong.
Briefly consider that the definition of homelessness is far more expansive than you might realize. It’s not just the people you see asking for money on the street, or see in shelters: a more expansive definition of homelessness also includes the Amazon worker sleeping in their car, the recently-evicted family living in a motel, and the fired marketing worker crashing on their friend’s couch. It’s hard to give firm numbers for the invisible or working homeless population because it’s not being tracked effectively by HUD.
Still, we can see its ripple effect elsewhere. In 2016, before a certain administration took the reins, the Department of Education (DoE) estimated that during the 2013–2014 school year, 1.3 million homeless children and youth were enrolled in public schools alone.
That’s way larger than the 553,000 number HUD estimate has for the entire homeless population, and it’s going to get worse.
We are in the middle of one of the greatest recessions in modern history, and with that comes a lot of economic instability. Voting has historically correlated with income level and housing, which makes our current times especially troubling. Millions, yes millions, of Americans have lost their jobs, and many of them cannot guarantee that they will be living in the same place from month-to-month.
Where are state officials supposed to send ballots to people who do not currently have a permanent address?
People with disabilities are another at-risk group if we switch over to a mail-only system. Some people require assistance to fill out their ballots, and federal law (again Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act) requires that voters with a disability be “given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice.” State governments are required to provide “personable” assistance to this demographic, which means another person must be physically present to help.
We need some form of mechanism to handle these edge cases, and it will need to be done with a reduced administrative capacity. These challenges will require a combination of solutions. We will need:
- Extended deadlines for registration and early voting
- Drop boxes that allow voters to deposit their ballots securely without having to go inside a specific precinct
- Opened precincts to follow strict sanitary guidelines
- Much more; The Brenan Center has created a comprehensive list of suggestions here.
Lastly, we have to adjust to the reality that mail-in ballots — at least for the time being — require more time to count. In 2018, 60% of Californians voted by absentee ballot, and some races took weeks to count. This delay is because mail-in votes do not come in all at once. As long as they are postmarked by election day, for example, California allows ballots to come in three days afterward, which means a counting delay of weeks, not hours.
As we can see, the challenges of having this election in the middle of a pandemic will be massive, and we haven’t even gotten to active voter suppression yet.
Active Suppression And Meddling, Guaranteed!
When the coronavirus first hit, there was a fear that Donald Trump would cancel the election. The idea has also been floated that Republican governors will use the virus as a pretext to institute lockdowns in Democratic counties. Others have argued that Republican state legislatures could decide to appoint electors rather than have actual voters vote.
These are scary possibilities — and while Constitutional requirements make a canceled election extremely unlikely — the idea that Republican governors would seize on this moment in history to disrupt this election is not as far-fetched. We lived in an era of rampant voter suppression even before the current pandemic hit, and unless some significant changes occur, this suppression is likely to enter into overdrive.
We have talked about how tenuous it is to implement a vote-by-mail system in such a short amount of time. Federal, state, and local governments will need to make a lot of changes (see above) to make this election workable. It will require a good-faith effort by political leaders across the ideological spectrum to stop our system from becoming overwhelmed, and we have no indication that Republicans are on board with this notion.
The cold truth is that the necessity for these changes existed BEFORE the coronavirus pandemic hit. Long lines and low voter turnout have been a part of our system for decades. Activists have been highlighting the need for reform for years, and nothing has been done. Republicans have refused to do anything about these problems because, on the whole, they are the primary beneficiaries of these failures: they have an older and whiter base that can generally afford to overcome the barriers that prevent younger, non-white people from voting.
After the Supreme Court struck down a vital part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a 2013 ruling called Shelby County v. Holder, Republican legislatures were given a unique opportunity. They were no longer required to get federal approval to change state election laws, and so they began to actively increase the number of laws that suppressed the vote. In the words of Mother Jones journalist Ari Berman to NPR:
“[That] decision, said that those states with the longest histories of discrimination no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government.”
These laws don’t bar specific groups of people from the polls (that is, thankfully, still illegal), but instead, they add to the existing pressure points in the system — everything highlighted above. They do things such as increase the requirements for voter registration and for staying on the voter rolls, which has the effect of disenfranchising poorer, browner people who cannot afford or are unable to meet those requirements.
When, for example, then-Secretary of State for Georgia Brian Kemp ran against Stacey Abraham’s for Governor in 2018, he used the powers of his office to hold up over 53,000 registrants due to an “exact match” law that flagged applicants for minor deviations from their name. Disregarding the fact that overseeing your own election is itself unethical, these applications belonged overwhelmingly to people of color. It should surprise no one that an “exact match law” ignores the many cultural reasons for why there might be discrepancies in a name (e.g., you belong to a culture that inverts first and last names, you have a hyphenated name, an anglicized nickname, etc.).
Shockingly, not a whole lot of Toms, Dicks, and Harrys were affected by this.
The “Exact Match” law was thankfully weakened in 2019 (though not overturned), but this system is still far from perfect. It was not even the only form of voter suppression to happen in that particular election cycle in Georgia. Earlier, in 2017, Kemp’s office also purged more than 300,000 names from its voter rolls. Some of these were because of legitimate issues such as moving to an out-of-state location or having an undeliverable mailing address, but a little under 100,000 voters were removed because of the state’s “use it or lose it” rule. This meant that they were bumped from the rolls because they had not voted in the past several elections, even if they remained in the same location.
Over 25 states (50% of the continental US) have some form of these laws on the books. They are all a variation of the same basic framework: add a minor requirement that whittles the list down, one voter at a time, and/or lower the resources devoted to fixing such issues. It’s not uncommon to see the strategic closure of precincts in more diverse areas or for county clerks to increase the requirements to fix mistakes.
The Republican party has been engaged in a seven-year-plus campaign to constrict the vote to preserve their base, and it has not stopped during the coronavirus. As recently as March of this year, the Kentucky state legislature passed a law that tightened its photo ID requirements at a time when much of the state’s apparatus has closed. President of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Kristen Clarke, said in a recent interview:
“Many people in Kentucky aren’t even able to visit a state office to obtain ID given office closures and other crisis-related obstacles. Lawmakers should be working on ensuring access to the polls in 2020, and this bill runs fully contrary to that.”
We have no indication that these voter suppression campaigns are going to stop for this pandemic. In fact, everything we have seen shows us that Republicans are candidly resistant to such reforms. The Georgian Speaker of the House, for example, recently made the remark that vote-by-mail would be “devastating to Republicans” (though to be fair, the state government is sending out ballots to registered voters in Georgia).
Like Kentucky, there are ongoing battles being waged across the country over voter rolls and registration. A noteworthy one is in Wisconsin, but we also see fights in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and California. It’s hard to believe that Republicans will stop these new campaigns, let alone lessen existing restrictions they have spent over half a decade fighting for.
We are at an unprecedented crossroads. The pandemic has crippled our capacity to host ordinary elections, and unprecedented reforms must be implemented if we want to retain current voter participation.
The Republican Party has thus far been hesitant to pass the necessary laws to achieve these goals, and worse, many Republican actors are continuing their campaign of voter suppression.
It’s difficult to say whether the more extreme examples of voter suppression (i.e., canceled elections, using state legislatures to bypass the vote, etc.) will happen. They seem unlikely, but we live in uncertain times. We were in the middle of a constitutional crisis before the pandemic (remember impeachment?), and that era of uncertainty continues now.
Even if extreme measures are not implemented, however, Republicans don’t need to cancel the 2020 election or place urban areas under lockdown to achieve success.
The current state of voter suppression is enough, and if we are not careful, it will help them win the election.
UPDATE (04/7/20): a previous version of this article claimed that the picture taken from the Pittsburg Post Gazzette was from the 2020 Pennsylvania primary. This was false.