100 days out, parties fear chaotic election
A little more than three months before November’s election, partisans who back both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are growing anxious over what they see as the mounting potential for a chaotic contest marred by disenfranchised voters, administration errors and mountains of litigation.
The new anxiety comes on top of the typical nerves that plague campaign operatives. Republicans are increasingly concerned that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the attending economic crisis has put off so many voters that his path to reelection is narrowing precipitously. Democrats are almost universally convinced that Biden’s polling lead is a mirage, a potential repeat of the 2016 calamity they did not see coming.
But a series of quieter developments have people on both sides nervous that Election Day may bring a host of its own unpredictable disasters.
As the pandemic swept across the nation in recent months, states have encouraged, and voters have embraced, casting ballots by mail. In some states that already run their elections almost entirely by mail, the added volume has been simple enough to handle.
For other states with less experience operating mail-in ballots, the influx has led to maddening delays. 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.
Election contests in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and California have been marred by delays, long lines and slow counts. And those were primary elections, where voter turnout is lower than it will be in November’s general election.
“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,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine and author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy.”
At the same time the coronavirus pandemic has made mail-in voting a more palatable option to voters around the country, it has also placed an unprecedented strain on the agency that is supposed to deliver those ballots, the U.S. Postal Service.
The USPS, already suffering a fiscal crisis, has seen massive revenue losses during the pandemic. The Postal Service is likely to run out of money by the end of September unless Congress acts. And Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a close ally of President Trump, who is a known skeptic of the Postal Service, is pushing for changes to operations that could delay mail delivery — a delay that could disenfranchise voters who wait too long to return their ballots.
Even without the changes, the USPS has come under scrutiny for unintentional errors that led to voter disenfranchisement. About 1,600 ballots cast in a Wisconsin election in April were discovered in a mail processing facility in Chicago the morning after Election Day. Thousands of voters in that election did not even receive the absentee ballots they requested. In Ohio, 317 ballots cast in the April 28 primary arrived at Butler County’s Board of Elections after a state-imposed deadline.
“Those who wait until the last minute to request and send back their absentee ballots risk disenfranchisement not through some kind of nefarious plot but through incompetence and sheer volume,” Hasen said in May.
Ballots that do make it back in time are still susceptible to rejection. Hundreds of thousands of ballots have been rejected in primary elections across the country because signatures were missing or did not match those on file with election officials, or because they were mailed back improperly.
Elections officials in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio rejected more than 1 percent of the mail-in ballots cast this year. More than 20 percent of absentee ballots are being rejected in parts of New York City, a shockingly high figure.
The slow counts, in particular, threaten to force the mainstream media to rethink the way it covers election night. In a typical election, after the polls close, data analysts in corporate headquarters in New York and Washington pour over precinct-level figures to try to project the ultimate winner, and on-screen graphics show just how many precincts have reported.
But those precinct-reporting figures and precinct-level results mean far less if half of a precinct’s ballots are sitting in a mail bin, unopened and uncounted when the polls actually do close.
“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,” said Sean Noble, a Republican strategist in Arizona. “County recorders are going to be under a microscope and almost none of them are prepared for that kind of scrutiny.”
Two years ago, a critical Senate race in Arizona was not decided for days on end, as election officials waded through huge numbers of absentee ballots. What had started as a small edge for Republican Martha McSally ended as a win for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.
Republicans and Democrats fear a repeat of that scenario this year, with a crucial difference: McSally conceded graciously when it became apparent that the numbers were not on her side. Trump, who is already raising unfounded questions about the integrity of an election that has not yet taken place, is more likely to use his Twitter feed to cast aspersions on legitimate counts that simply take longer than usual.
“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,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina. “The president’s recent comments provide no reassurance that the outcome, especially one against him, would not be called into question, and we know the Republican base is loyal to an almost fault line in our politics.”
It is not even clear that the rules for conducting an election in place today will be the same rules under which November’s elections are conducted. Democratic groups are suing election administrators over elections procedures in at least 20 states, over everything from mail-in ballot deadlines to access to absentee ballots and collection laws.
The lawsuits, most of which are being overseen by Marc Elias, the most prominent election lawyer in Democratic circles, have already yielded results in some states. The group has won cases in 23 states in recent years, changing rules around redistricting, absentee voting and voter registration.
Both Democrats and Republicans have already invested tens of millions of dollars in unprecedented legal challenges, and all signs indicate that a new round of lawsuits is almost certain the moment polls close.
“If 2000’s Bush v. Gore was any indication, and with twenty years of deepening and hardening political polarization, legal threats and public outrage over delayed outcomes could make this year’s election season even more poisonous,” Bitzer said.
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