Here’s what we know so far: the coronavirus is upending just about every aspect of American life, turning all group activities into health risks. If it is still floating around in November—and it almost certainly will be—it puts one of the most consequential votes of our lifetimes in real jeopardy. How can Election Day polling places, which normally handle thousands of people and long lines, operate safely? Short answer: they can’t.
So what to do?
The good news is there’s an obvious Plan B: voting by mail. Several states already have some solid experience with it: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington now vote almost exclusively by absentee ballot, and several other states, including the key swing state of Florida, have been steadily moving toward more mail-in voting. Today, 34 states allow all voters to cast their ballots in the privacy of their homes, and about 20% of voting Americans mail in their ballots. (Mailed “absentee” ballots go back to the Civil War and have long been used by soldiers overseas. But it is only over the last two decades that states have facilitated widespread no-excuse early voting, both by mail and in person.)
The bad news is that this Plan B isn’t exactly ready to sign, seal, and deliver everywhere. Many states have limited experience processing mail ballots—including very large or very significant ones such as Texas and New Hampshire. If coronavirus pushes us to vote by mail, they’ll have considerable catch-up to do and just a few months to do it. Mix in long-simmering and widespread electoral distrust (whether it’s over allegations of voter fraud or foreign meddling), sprinkle with charged partisan fights over voting rules, toss in the likelihood of a close election, and … well, implementing a new voting regime is a category 5 challenge.
But there is no Plan C, and the November election must go on. We’ve held regular elections during two world wars, one civil war, and the 1918 influenza epidemic. We’ve handled exceptional circumstances before, and to break the norm would push us into arbitrary authoritarianism at the precise moment that stability is needed most. American democracy depends on it, full stop.
Successfully running the 2020 election by mail requires three things to happen.
First, everybody needs to get a ballot. In theory, election administrators should just be able to scan their voter rolls and mail out ballots to everyone. But in practice the rolls are rarely up to date. People die; people move, often out of state. Making sure that everybody can participate requires lots of public education, especially since many lower-income and younger voters tend to pay attention only just before Election Day—when it may be too late to ensure that they received their ballot.
Second, everybody’s vote must get counted. In theory, every state could have a website where voters follow their ballot to see whether it arrived at the counting site, and whether or not it was processed successfully. But processing is not straightforward. Poll workers check that the ballot is actually from the person who mailed it (typically using a verified signature) and then make sure it is filled out properly. If the signature doesn’t match, or the ballot was improperly completed, voters need to be notified with enough time to try again. This puts voters who deliver their ballots at the last minute at a disadvantage again—and because last-minute voters tend to be the least engaged, they are the most likely to have mistakes.
Third, fraud must be minimal to nonexistent. Mailed ballots can fall foul of spousal or parental coercion, or politically engaged family members may fill out ballots on behalf of relatives. This is illegal, and should incur a stiff fine. But enforcement can be tricky. Mailed votes also give political operatives a potential to “harvest” ballots and fill them out illegally on behalf of others. The most prominent recent example comes from North Carolina, where Republican operative Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. collected absentee ballots, forged signatures, and filled in some votes. Eventually, prosecutors caught up with him, and the state board of elections called a do-over.
The more resources devoted to processing and enforcement, the less fraud will slip by. But make the standards for signature matching too stringent and it will generate false negatives, which could leave voters disenfranchised.
There’s also a trade-off between timeliness and thoroughness. States will likely have to process a crush of ballots quickly, and quality may slip. But thorough counting could go on for weeks, potentially undermining confidence in the outcome (especially if late-counted ballots change the winner). And in a close election, litigation could go on for months if voters claim their ballots were rejected unfairly or participants make allegations of fraud.
While mail-in ballots will be important, they won’t work for everybody, so there will need to be other ways to mitigate the impact coronavirus will have on voting. As well as pushing toward vote-by-mail, states could extend early in-person voting to mitigate crowds, and add more polling stations to allow for social distancing. As with voting by mail, opening polls before Election Day is not a new solution—41 states have early in-person voting already, and in the 2016 election, almost 20% of voters cast their ballot in person before Election Day. But states vary, and partisan politics have led some states to cut back on early voting options.
And here’s where things get tricky. America’s hyper-partisan politics are already dysfunctional, and voting rules are especially partisan and highly litigated. For two decades, Democrats have generally pushed to make voting easier while Republicans have generally pushed to make voting harder. Navigating a legitimate compromise around expanded voting opportunities won’t be easy, especially since ramping up quickly will be expensive at a time when the economy is shaky. But without support from both Democratic and Republican leaders, the chances of success plummet.
All of which adds a sense of urgency. If we’re going to have a legitimate election in November, we need to plan for it now, putting fair rules and the right technologies in place—even if they are old ones. If the 2020 election can’t go on smoothly and on schedule, we may not see a vote that approaches normal for a while to come.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America, cohost of the Politics in Question podcast, and author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.