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America might survive coronavirus. But will the election?


That doesn’t reflect reality, however. Oregon has seen over 100 million mail-in ballots since switching to vote-by-mail in 1998, and no one has ever found significant numbers of fraudulent votes. In 2016, out of over 2 million voters, only 10 Oregonians were convicted of vote fraud. (In fact, mail votes incorporate a number of security measures, including bar-code tracking of ballots and accurate voter registration databases. Most of the time, signatures are used to verify identity.)

However, Trump has built part of his political success on lying about mass voter fraud, and the Republican Party has mounted efforts to make voting harder, not easier, such as purging voter rolls and adding further identity requirements. Vote-by-mail is a victim of that partisan attack, even if evidence shows it can increase turnout across the board.

In the end, the stimulus bill passed in March did include $400 million to help states with their election problems. It’s a big number, but less than a quarter of the amount voting experts say is needed to run this election safely during the pandemic. “I think it shows a really lamentable lack of properly prioritizing the importance of elections that are the bedrock of our democracy,” says Eddie Perez of the Open Source Election Technology Institute.

Still, things could change. When Congress returns later in April, a more robust vote-by-mail bill championed by Democratic senators Ron Wyden and Amy Klobuchar is expected to become a priority. It would give even more cash—the exact amount is still being decided—to those who actually run elections, designating it to speed up the difficult transition to vote-by-mail.

The bill, known as the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, would also ensure that people who cannot vote by mail have more time to vote in person by requiring at least 20 days of early voting to prevent long lines and crowds. It would give states money to hire and train new poll workers to avoid endangering the older folks who usually fill that role.

Wyden and Klobuchar may or may not secure the funding they want or the votes in Congress they require. But more money is definitely required to manage the shift properly. McReynolds’s National Vote at Home Institute tallied up the cost in Michigan, including the price of facilities, infrastructure, ballot mailing, voter education, professional services, and employee salaries. Final bill: $37.5 million for that single state, and only if they start the work today.

Ground game gone

Even if the voting process is expanded, authorities act quickly, and they get all the funds they need, there’s a whole other universe of issues to solve. For example, if so much of the country is under shelter-in-place orders, how will the campaign be fought?

Already we’re seeing election season shift as the crisis changes the way we interact and communicate. Rallies have moved from arenas to live streams. For the Democratic presidential primary debates, TV studio audiences were told to stay home. And fundraising has plummeted as markets have gone through some of the steepest drops and most dizzying ascents in US history. When millions of Americans file for unemployment simultaneously, no one is thinking much about donating to their favorite candidates.

Jaime Lennon, a spokesperson for Dutch Ruppersberger, a congressman from Maryland, says business as usual is not an option. “He’s so busy right now,” she says.

“We are hitting near records in terms of phone calls and emails from constituents that need help, whether it be unemployment, or small-business owners needing help navigating the new aid package, or just folks with medical questions, like questions about the availability of testing … It seems like all election operations are on pause at the moment.”

“We are hitting near records in terms of phone calls and emails from constituents that need help… It seems like all election operations are on pause at the moment.”

Jaime Lennon, Congressional aide

Even if there were time to campaign, what would that look like when supporters can’t go knocking on doors to drum up votes and the economic crisis is draining the bank accounts of grassroots donors?

“There is no sunny spin if you are running against an incumbent. It’s devastating,” says Brianna Wu, a software engineer and candidate for Congress in Massachusetts. Unable to knock on doors, Wu may struggle even to get the signatures needed to end up on the ballot, a task her campaign was previously well ahead on.

There are plenty of ways to target voters without ever having to meet anyone in person, like phone banking, television ads, and social media. But Wu, who ran and lost in 2018, says it’s not enough.

“We’ve certainly been fortunate in having a very strong digital game, but one of the lessons I learned in the 2018 race is you cannot win an election by just hanging out online,” she says. “I got about half the votes I needed to win by focusing on digital. And that was great for a first-time candidate, but my hardest lesson is you cannot win without a strong field operation. And I find myself asking, how the hell are we going to do that?” 

Many candidates—including Wu—had been focused on building the kind of ground game that famously catapulted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory in New York City: knock on doors, talk with people, win votes. Now Wu’s campaign is calling up individual houses and asking to send over petitions, pens, and envelopes to get signatures and move their fight forward. Meanwhile, conversations about fundraising are next to impossible.

“My theory is this crisis will benefit the status quo,” Wu says. “It will come down to name recognition if people vote at all.”

The fog of online war

The social-media platforms that were exploited as conduits for disinformation in the 2016 election will have more impact than ever in the 2020 campaign: there simply is no better way to reach voters under lockdown. Though the platforms now have new rules and algorithms to limit disinformation, a rapid shift to making the campaigns even more digital creates new opportunities for misleading voters.

China, where the pandemic began, first tried to cover up the disease: now it has armies of propagandists spreading conspiracy theories about covid-19’s origins. European Union officials, meanwhile, say Russia is undertaking a “significant disinformation campaign” against Western Europe, intent on sowing chaos and uncertainty during a crisis.

The biggest disinformation threat the US faces, however, may be domestic. In 2016, Trump tried to undermine trust in election results by saying that if he didn’t win, it would be because the system was rigged. And during the coronavirus crisis, while his rivals for the presidency have been muted, he has used his daily press briefings to repeatedly downplay the severity of the pandemic, rewrite the historical record about his response to the situation, and distort or lie about things like the effectiveness of drugs and the availability of ventilators. 

“You want a leader to give people hope, but you need a leader to be honest,” says Angus King, a senator from Maine who cochaired the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a project meant to define the US’s national strategy online. “What did Churchill say at the beginning of World War II? ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ He told the British it was going to be hard, with no sugarcoating. President Trump said it’ll be like a miracle and it will just go away, and that this malaria drug is a gift from God. Turns out it isn’t. That’s harmful.” 

No stopping

In the fall of 2018, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the western Pacific Ocean slammed into the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the US. The storm had intensified over the span of three days into a category 5 super-typhoon, with winds reaching 175 miles (280 kilometers) per hour. Typhoon Yutu made landfall on October 24, killing dozens of people, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of buildings, and disrupting life in ways no one there had ever seen before.

The Northern Mariana Islands pushed Election Day back a week in order to begin recovering from the storm first. Remarkably, this had never happened before in US history: elections have taken place on schedule through not just the influenza pandemic of 1918 but two world wars and even the Civil War.

That means the likelihood of the national election being pushed back or even canceled is virtually nil. Election experts and constitutional lawyers widely agree that such a change would require a constitutional amendment, and little about the current political climate suggests that Congress could pass one.

A bigger concern is that without the option to vote by mail, the pandemic will discourage people from voting altogether. The 1918 flu outbreak may have been responsible for low turnout in that year’s midterm election (though turnout fell for the next two midterms as well). More recently, France held its nationwide municipal elections on March 15—just one day after a national lockdown was announced in response to the coronavirus. Turnout was low, and the next round of elections was pushed back by three months as a result. Low turnout in November will inevitably invite claims that the results lack legitimacy. 

“Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to roll out major changes in election rules in the midst of a major election,” says Richard Hasen, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of a recent book on threats to American democracy. “But we’re facing an unprecedented health emergency. And so we’re not going to have a perfect election. The question is how we can make it as good as possible and disenfranchise as few people as possible.”

The answer—for voters and for democratic institutions alike—is clear: if America wants to hold an election that produces a “normal” result without sacrificing people’s health, it has a blueprint to work from. It needs to start now, even if the solution isn’t perfect. And it’s going to require one hell of a lot of paper.



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