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What We Can Do to Stop Voting Chaos in November

Voters wait to cast ballots in Nevada, where everyone was supposed to vote by mail. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The byword for elections this spring has been “chaos” as state after state holds primaries afflicted by long lines and other polling-place irregularities, failure to get mail ballots in the hands of voters, much slower vote counts, and other irregularities too numerous to list, all of them exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Last week we saw intolerable wait times for in-person voters in Georgia and Nevada. In both states, there were multiple reports that voters were at the polls because they hadn’t received mail ballots. Returns were very slow in both states.

The District of Columbia and Maryland had similar problems the same day; alarms were going up in the latter jurisdiction earlier, as the Washington Post reported:

State Sen. Cory V. McCray was bicycling with his four children when a constituent stopped him in the middle of the street to ask, “Where’s my ballot?” …

“My blood just started boiling,” recalled McCray (D-Baltimore City), recounting his frustration over delays that resulted in 1 million registered voters in Baltimore City and Montgomery County receiving their ballots late — or not at all.

State elections officials blamed the error on an out-of-state vendor but said a full audit will have to wait until after the primary, when voters will choose nominees for president, Baltimore mayor and City Council, and all eight of Maryland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The situation echoed earlier problems in Pennsylvania, where the governor extended deadlines for receipt of mail ballots in Philadelphia and five other counties, and in Wisconsin, where an effort to extend that state’s deadlines died at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Amid warnings that these primaries portend a potential disaster in November, when turnout — and the stakes — will be much higher, voting rights activists are struggling to determine what can be done. It’s simply too late for any major overhaul of voting procedures, and the president’s staunch opposition to liberalized voting by mail has made that approach unavailable in many states controlled by Republicans. Time is running out and options are limited, but there are still some simple steps states and political parties can take to protect voting rights and prevent fraud in the November election:

1. Accept That Slow Returns Are the New Normal

One problem we’re going to have in November is that election returns are going to be slower in many states than people are used to — and that’s all right. With a spike in voting by mail attributable both to coronavirus fears and a preexisting trend in that direction (the key battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Michigan have just adopted no-excuse absentee voting), you’re not going to know the winners in close races until mail ballots are counted. That could take days in some cases: Election Day is generally the deadline for receiving (or in some states, postmarking) ballots, and they require signature authentication, at a minimum, by local election officials.

Getting used to slower counts and delayed election “calls” will require a cultural change among journalists and politicians, but there’s a corollary that may be particularly important this year thanks to the president’s lurid and unsupported fraud claims about voting by mail: Slower counts mean early leads can vanish days later. That’s what happened in key House races in California in 2018, when early Republican leads melted and then disappeared as late ballots were counted. It’s a rule of thumb that the young and minority voters who lean Democratic are much more likely to cast mail ballots at the last minute, and these votes will be counted last. But that didn’t keep top congressional Republican leaders from suggesting foul play, without evidence.

2. Speed Up Voting by Mail

Both major political parties should encourage their constituencies to mail their ballots as early as possible to reduce the crush. In states with firm deadlines, this ensures ballots will arrive in time to be counted. It also prevents scenarios where voters who fear they missed the deadline show up in person on Election Day and overwhelm election officials (as occurred in Nevada last week during what was supposed to be an all-mail-ballot primary).

Some states (including battlegrounds Michigan and Pennsylvania) have laws prohibiting the counting of mail ballots prior to Election Day. There’s no good — or even bad, partisan — reason for doing this, and such laws should be repealed.

Preventing fatal delays in the mail-ballot process is obviously easier if states don’t require applications to receive a ballot, but if (as Republicans typically prefer) this process is used, applications should be sent out proactively well ahead of the elections. And providing drop boxes to deposit mail ballots makes sense, particularly in states that refuse to provide prepaid postage envelopes for mail ballots.

Speeding up the intake of mail ballots can be done efficiently via sorting machines for initial processing (preferably at statewide processing centers), and scanners that use signature authentication software, as recommended by the National Voting at Home Institute.

3. Address Legitimate Concerns About Fraud

Like most claims of “voter fraud,” those associated with expanded voting by mail are unsubstantiated, though taking ballots out of the hands of election officials for longer than the time necessary to cast votes does theoretically increase the odds of ballot tampering. Ballot tracking with a bar code enabling both election officials and voters to keep up with the location of ballots just like any other “delivery” would address most legitimate concerns, along with reasonable requirements that voters notify authorities of changes of address. The much-discussed “threat” of third-party ballot-collection entities (a.k.a., “ballot harvesters”) can be defused by limits on the number of ballots they are allowed to collect, and hefty penalties for ballot tampering (which are already pretty stiff nearly everywhere; in federal elections, each act of fraud can earn you five years in the slammer on top of state penalties).

4. Fully Utilize Provisional Ballots

One of the few lasting reforms initiated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (itself a response to the December 2000 chaos in Florida) was the introduction of “provisional ballots,” a sort of safety net recording a voter’s preferences in cases where their eligibility is in question (often because of minor discrepancies in registration records or a change in voting locations). In some Georgia polling places last week, election officials ran out of provisional ballots, which was particularly unfortunate since voters who couldn’t wait in insanely long lines should have been offered them.

5. Provide for Early In-Person Voting

One obvious way to reduce excessive polling-place crowds on Election Day is to expand opportunities for in-person early voting, via legislative or executive action. This issue has become a partisan football in recent years as Republicans in many states fought to restrict early voting because, well, Democrats (particularly minority voters) liked it. That’s simply no longer credible at a time when Republicans are arguing for in-person voting as inherently less vulnerable to fraud. If it’s a good thing, it’s a good thing early as well as late, particularly with a pandemic making polling-place crowds potentially deadly and definitely discouraging to voters.

6. Avoid Last-Minute Surprises

One of the oldest forms of election chicanery of them all is to make last-minute changes to voting places, procedures, or equipment. In Georgia last week, a major source of trouble was the state’s introduction of new voting machines that had not been tested, deployed by local election officials who had not been trained. State election officials (Republicans, as it happened) blamed the problems on local election officials (typically Democrats in the most affected urban counties) for “human error,” as though election equipment isn’t designed for use by humans. In a state where GOP election officials have often been credibly accused of voter-suppression tactics, the confusion seemed the product of either malice or negligence.

7. Speak Out Against Voter Suppression

Both major parties obviously have an interest in maximizing their own vote and minimizing the opposition’s. But the ever-increasing investment of the GOP in restricting the franchise is troubling, particularly given the partisan election administration that prevails in many states. If voting is a right, not a privilege (and there are conservatives who insist it’s the latter), then both parties should promote greater participation, as indeed both once did in the days when that was considered a good-government no-brainer. Deliberately making it harder to vote should be shamed out of American politics.

8. Shut Down False ‘Rigged Election’ Claims

The nightmare scenario I alluded to earlier is that Trump takes an early lead on Election Night in key battleground states, the president and the RNC declare victory, and then late ballots reverse the outcome and award a victory to Joe Biden. I spelled it out last month:

Trump is now regularly claiming that voting by mail is inherently illegitimate, except for grudging exceptions for people who can’t make it to the polls. So, presumably, states that allow for no-excuse voting by mail in November are holding “substantially fraudulent” elections. That’s 34 states who do so by law (including battleground states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), 11 more that so far are waiving excuse requirements this pandemic year (including New Hampshire), and another that may be forced to do so by a lawsuit (Texas).

So in a very real sense, unless Trump backs off his claims that voting by mail means a “rigged election,” he’s letting us know that he and his supporters will be justified in challenging any adverse results in states that allow this terrible practice to take place.

Republicans need to repudiate this dangerous possibility early and often, as should Democrats in the unlikely event that Biden forgets his party is committed to voting rights even when they don’t produce victory.

What We Can Do to Stop Voting Chaos in November