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The slow-motion 2020 election disaster states are scrambling to prevent, explained

Election experts warn the country is not ready for the November election.

People wait in line to vote in Georgia’s primary election on June 9, 2020, in Atlanta.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

President Donald Trump escalated his false claims about vote-by-mail in the November 3 election on Thursday, going so far as to suggest that the election be delayed outright.

Trump has been attacking vote-by-mail for months, suggesting a well-established method of voting used for years by Democratic and Republican voters alike is “fraudulent” and “inaccurate.” Rather than focusing on the federal government’s dismal response to the Covid-19 pandemic or the stagnant American economy, Trump is questioning the outcome of an election that hasn’t happened yet.

While he does not have the authority to actually cancel or delay the election (Congress has more authority in this matter than the president does, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser explained), he still wields enormous power. As the incumbent president, he has influence over federal coronavirus aid to help state officials prepare for unprecedented election circumstances, and oversees federal agencies like the US Postal Service, on which many Americans will rely to deliver their absentee ballots. Perhaps most importantly, Trump appears committed to sowing doubt about the election’s integrity months before it happens — which could influence the behavior of his supporters and foster doubt about the election’s outcome.

“He has more influence than any other political figure in the world over the US election; there’s no other way to put it,” Stanford Law School professor Nate Persily told Vox in a recent interview.

Trump’s tweets are one thing, but state officials are staring down myriad other issues in the runup to November — when they’ll have to both try to coronavirus-proof their in-person elections and offer a vote-by-mail option.

The summer primaries have painted a worrisome picture: Many states are woefully underprepared for a 2020 general election in the age of Covid-19. Even worse, many of these states are finding themselves in dire economic straits due to the coronavirus crisis — and Congress has yet to pass more federal funds to help them prepare for the election.

“They almost have to run two elections instead of just one. It’s quite the challenge,” said elections expert Ned Foley, a constitutional law professor at the Ohio State University Moritz School of Law. “Looking at the primaries, unfortunately they show we have serious capacity challenges we are not yet ready for and we are really running out of time.”

States are scrambling to prepare for an unprecedented election

States across the country are scrambling to get ready for a likely high-turnout presidential election in the middle of a pandemic.

States that have had universal vote-by-mail or no-excuse absentee voting in prior years should be in a better position to handle turnout. But it will be more difficult for states that are moving to no-excuse absentee voting for the first time to get up to speed and hold safe in-person elections by November 3.

The summer primaries have shown many states have a lot of work to do on both fronts, each with its unique challenges. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Washington, DC, many voters waited in line hours to cast their ballots as some cities drastically reduced the number of polling places. In Atlanta, lack of training and broken voting equipment caused a massive bottleneck of voters waiting in line at some polling places, a New York Times report found. While there have been allegations of voter suppression, especially when these things happen in communities of color, elections experts told Vox it can also be chalked up to the challenges of conducting an election in the middle of a pandemic.

“What we’re seeing in much of the current primary election season ... has less to do with intentional suppression than the difficulty of running a successful election in a pandemic,” said elections expert Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California Irvine.

With in-person voting, the main challenges have to do with staffing and physical space. Poll workers tend to be older or retired, and some are choosing not to volunteer at their polling place for fear of contracting Covid. This has caused some states and municipalities to close certain polling locations, which results in long lines at the places remaining open. Experts say elections officials need to start recruiting younger poll workers as soon as possible, to train them and get them up to speed on the process.

“The lesson out of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Georgia is try to plan in advance to get extra poll workers, assume your older poll workers may not want to work on Election Day, and have a backup plan,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former Federal Election Commission chair.

Besides staffing polling locations, another challenge is physical space. When a lot of small polling places close due to staff shortages, it’s very difficult to rout excess voters through one smaller location. Some states have solved this issue by allowing early voting and opening massive polling places, in sports arenas and exposition centers. These allow more voters to cast their ballots at once, while maintaining social distancing and other safety measures.

Vote-by-mail isn’t “fraudulent,” but there could be delays

When you get to voting by mail, there are even more challenges. It can take years to successfully implement a robust vote-by-mail system, and many states are trying to set it up over a few months — at the same time as there is huge demand for mailed ballots. In the 2016 presidential primary, Georgia saw about 45,000 requests for absentee ballots, according to a Brennan Center report. In the 2020 primary, it was nearly 1.5 million requests, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office. Other states are dealing with similar spikes in requests.

“When you’re dealing with that kind of capacity for the first time, especially in high-stakes elections, of course things are going to go wrong,” Hasen said.

States trying to adapt to vote-by-mail systems in a short amount of time need to secure contracts with third-party vendors to print ballots, envelopes, and instructions for voters. States that are new to vote-by-mail may also need to purchase costly equipment to scan and count votes in a timely manner because they simply don’t have enough people to process a crush of returned ballots.

“It would take something like 500 people all day just to open a million ballots,” Persily said. “You’ve got to automate the process if you can.”

Worries abound about the state of the US Postal Service, which is chronically in debt due to a 2006 law mandating it prepay its employees’ retiree benefits, and has asked for financial help to no avail. Elections experts fear that recent changes to the USPS mail delivery times ordered by Trump donor and new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy could cause further delays for Americans casting their ballots absentee.

“For tens of millions of Americans, they’ll have their ballot handed to them by a postal worker, not a poll worker,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser on elections at the nonpartisan foundation Democracy Fund. “They’re not getting the same sort of support from Congress and from the administration that we’re seeing fast-food restaurants get or some of these other service providers and markets.”

These changes are causing many experts to plead with voters to not wait until the last second to request or cast their ballot, and to put their ballots in the mail at least a week before Election Day. If they arrive late — even if they are postmarked on time — some states have rejected them.

As the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman recently wrote, high rates of rejected absentee ballots could have a profound impact on the election. If Democratic voters use mail-in ballots more than Republicans during the 2020 election, they run the risk that more of those ballots could be rejected if they’re not received on time — which could be problematic for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Wasserman writes:

For a moment, imagine a swing state where 42 percent of ballots are cast by mail and Biden carries them 80 percent to 20 percent, while Trump carries all other ballots 70 percent to 30 percent. If every ballot were to count, Biden would win the state 51 percent to 49 percent. But if eight percent of absentees were ruled invalid for various reasons - and the invalidated votes were reflective of the overall absentee pool - Trump would prevail by two hundredths of one percent.

The biggest message election experts have to voters casting an absentee ballot: Mail in your ballot as early as possible to make sure it’s counted.

“Don’t wait to register to vote, don’t wait to request a ballot on the deadline,” Patrick said. “You’re never going to get that ballot in time.”

Many of these problems could be helped with additional federal funding for states, but Congress has been slow to act on an additional coronavirus stimulus package. The $2 trillion CARES Act contained $400 million for state election funding, but much of that was used by states to prepare for their primaries over the spring and summer. To pull off a bigger general election, more funding is needed.

“To minimize the risk of something going wrong, more resources would be appreciated,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told Vox. Simon said additional funding would help his state mail absentee ballots out to voters that want them; with over 454,000 absentee requests already, Simon is anticipating up to 1.2 million absentee ballot requests in Minnesota’s general election.

“It’s a staff intensive, labor intensive thing to process the applications and the actual ballots,” he told Vox. “It’s two layers of administrative time.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants Congress to appropriate $4 billion to prepare for the election, but Senate Republicans have balked at the cost of Democrats’ coronavirus package and proposed a much smaller bill. With jockeying priorities, election funding may not make it into a final bipartisan package.

The primaries have laid bare the issues with voting capacity, but the US Congress has done little to act. And even with some primaries seeing historic turnout levels, general election turnout in November will likely exceed the summer primaries.

“2020 turnout may not be significantly higher than 2016 or previous years, but it’s the combination of this being a presidential year with high levels of interest with the Covid challenges, which is the perfect storm,” Foley said.

In a pre-Covid world, most elections experts worried about the prospect of foreign hacking or meddling. Those fears still linger, but much more present and worrisome is the prospect of many other things going wrong due to the pandemic and the constraints it has placed on in-person voting.

“It is a sign of our through-the-looking-glass times that I can now be nostalgic for the moment when all we needed to fear was foreign takeover of the U.S. electoral system or widespread voter-targeted disinformation,” Persily wrote in a recent article.

Trump is already suggesting widespread voter fraud — months before the election

For many election experts, the nightmare scenario for the November 3 general election starts with a too-close-to-call contest between Trump and Biden.

If a major swing state like Pennsylvania or Florida experiences delays and problems counting ballots on election night or the days or weeks after, it could give Trump an opening to call the results into question — especially if there’s a noticeable partisan split between in-person and absentee ballots. We don’t yet know if Republican voters will listen to Trump and eschew mail-in ballots, but some experts wonder if the president will accidentally undercut his own turnout.

“He’s risking his own voters,” Hasen said. “Whether that’s a deliberate strategy on Trump’s part ... or simply Trump flailing about and seeing something he thinks will work to his advantage, I don’t know, but either way, it’s very problematic.”

If the election is too close to call for days or weeks, experts fear Trump will use that time to continue to call the results into question — especially if he loses. The consequences could be a crisis of democracy around the legitimacy of an election if the losing party refuses to concede defeat.

“If it takes two weeks to know the result, we ought to be able to land with a result we’re confident with,” Foley said. “The system goes off the rails when the losing candidate doesn’t accept defeat after all the votes are counted — or recounted.”

No matter which candidate wins, it has to be a blowout for the sake of American democracy, experts said. With Trump already railing about a stolen election, there’s not much evidence the president would actually accept defeat.

In the meantime, there’s still an inordinate amount of work state elections officials must do to attempt to make sure the 2020 presidential election goes as smoothly as possible in incredibly trying circumstances.

“Things are going to go wrong, there’s no question about it,” said Hasen. “The biggest question is how close the margin is. If it’s a blowout, the public will look past many of the problems.”