Keep calm and let the election officials carry on
The enormous interest in the 2020 election is plagued by anxiety that election officials are not ready for the tidal wave of mail-in and drop-off ballots already coming in and the crush of in-person votes to be cast and counted. Although we can’t say how the system will acquit itself on Nov. 3, we do know that local officials are better prepared to weather the storm than they were 20 years ago.
Most voters today remember when the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down to a hotly contested recount in Florida. The razor-thin margin, hanging chads, butterfly ballots, and the political circus surrounding the tally ultimately led to a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore to end the recount more than a month after the votes were cast, effectively deciding the election for Bush.
One of the closest presidential races in history, the 2000 election revealed serious problems in American election administration: Dysfunctional voter registration systems. Decrepit voting machines. An election workforce of civil servants borrowed from their day jobs, and insufficiently trained volunteers. The aftermath of Bush v. Gore led election officials nationwide to examine those liabilities and take steps to address them.
In the two decades since, states have invested in new voting machines, including many that use the tried-and-true technology to scan paper ballots that voters mark by hand. Computerized databases have made it easier for voters to register and for officials to keep voting lists up to date. Nearly every state now allows voters to conveniently register online, check the status of their absentee ballots, and find their polling places. Officials have standardized criteria for counting ballots throughout each state, and civil servants and poll workers receive far more professional training than ever before.
After Bush v. Gore, the two of us worked on nonpartisan programs at The Pew Charitable Trusts to establish resources such as the Electronic Registration Information Center, now a voluntary, independent consortium of 30 states dedicated to improving the accuracy of voter rolls and increasing voter registration. Pew also launched the Voter Information Project, which provides accurate, up-to-the-minute information to help voters navigate elections. And we worked on legislation to make sure that ballots from U.S. military forces and other Americans working abroad would be counted on time.
These changes and more have helped election officials prepare for an avalanche of votes in 2020. In fact, external factors such as cybersecurity vulnerabilities and disinformation campaigns may pose the greatest threats. The rise of social media has allowed bad actors at home and abroad to easily spread falsehoods and feed conspiracy theories. And although there is little evidence of voter fraud or election malfeasance in the United States, our rancorous partisan divides have created baseless doubts about the integrity, security, and ultimate credibility of our elections.
Make no mistake: There will be problems on Election Day. Partisan squabbles over voting rules are still going through the courts, and last-minute changes to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic may create confusion. Some polling sites will operate flawlessly; at others, voting machines will malfunction, poll workers will fail to show, and lines will stretch for blocks. Allegations of voter intimidation and wrongly discarded ballots will arise. And we may not know the winner on election night or even over the next few days, especially because some states won’t begin counting millions of mailed ballots until Nov. 3.
It will doubtless be nerve-wracking, but no reason to panic. By and large, local election officials want to count the votes accurately and go home on election night. And nobody wants to see their home state suffer Florida’s fate this time around.
We can’t know what Nov. 3 will bring. But we do know that for the past 20 years, election officials throughout the nation have sought to shore up their systems, train their workers and prepare. On Election Day, the politicians, pundits, and the public should take a collective deep breath and let election officials do their work. Let’s see what two decades of strengthening our voting institutions have bought.
Michael Caudell-Feagan is executive vice president and chief program officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Charles H. Stewart III is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab.