There’s no question about it: Holding successful elections under current conditions is going to be difficult.
The good news is that a group of experts put together by election-law maven Rick Hasen, the Ad Hoc Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy, has thought through many of the major issues and published solid recommendations for getting it right this November. Now we’ll see whether politicians and the media will follow through.
How to work around the pandemic? What’s needed is an approach that allows for several methods of voting. Mail voting should be an important piece of this, and no-excuse absentee voting (meaning you don’t have to explain why you are casting your ballot that way) extended to those states that don’t have it.
For its part, the media, especially TV, have an important role to play in how they handle election-night coverage (as well as pre-election reporting). They need to emphasise that vote counts will be slow in some states; that experience has shown that the late tallies tend to help Democrats; and that the reason for slow counting is accuracy, not anything nefarious
The overall strategy: “Having a diversity of avenues for voting “- in-person, absentee, kerbside, on-site at hospitals and other such facilities “- enhances the stability of the system, maximising the likelihood that elections may continue despite whatever unexpected threat emerges.”
No one knows how difficult in-person voting will be by the fall, but states should prepare for the worst “- and Congress should immediately provide emergency funding, with up to $2 billion needed.
There are sufficient practical justification for the US to make sure its elections are run well. No one wants the uncertainty of an extended contested election with complaints like those we heard about the recent Wisconsin primary or the Iowa caucuses in February.
The ordeal of a contested presidential election was bad enough in 2000 when the nation was in pretty good shape, and even then it was probably damaging. Just imagine if it happened during an ongoing pandemic and a severe economic contraction. Spending a little now to reduce the chances of chaos in November would be a smart insurance play.
Challenge to democracy
The 2020 election committee began its work before the coronavirus showed up, because significant challenges to US democracy were already in place. Some will be even bigger threats now.
One big one involves reporting election results. As more states have switched to vote by mail, counting has extended well beyond election night, and a gap has emerged in which late-counted votes have tended to be more Democratic than Republican.
States must be as transparent as possible about the slow counts that they can’t prevent. Overall, the aim should be to “reduce the extent to which the counting of such ballots might be subject to counting delays that could cause significant shifts in vote margins after in-precinct returns are reported on election night.”
For its part, the media, especially TV, have an important role to play in how they handle election-night coverage (as well as pre-election reporting).
They need to emphasise that vote counts will be slow in some states; that experience has shown that the late tallies tend to help Democrats; and that the reason for slow counting is accuracy, not anything nefarious.
Remember: States know these situations are coming. Journalists who cover elections should certainly know they are. And with more absentee ballots expected this fall, there’s going to be even more late counting than usual. The chances that an election-night lead will flip, as more votes are tallied, are higher than ever.
Difficult to convey
This should not be difficult to convey. It’s common for a TV network to explain that an early lead doesn’t mean much because we don’t know where the votes are coming from, or even that a lead is unlikely to hold up because we know that precincts expected to support the trailing candidate haven’t been totalled yet.
All the reporters have to do is to extend their “where” provisos to include the “when” factor of slower counting.
For all its good specific guidance for ensuring a fair election, the committee unfortunately has no convincing answer when it comes to the larger threats to democracy. Here’s what it recommends:
Losers of fair elections should quickly accept election results once they are final. Elections, even those conducted during a crisis or emergency such as COVID-19, should be resolved consistent with fair election principles, recognising and resolving disputes in good faith.
That’s easier said than done in any situation, and it’s unfortunately impossible to assume that President Donald Trump will uphold democratic norms.
After all, he has repeatedly accused others of fraud, even in an election he won, and continued to make such claims, even after his phoney allegations were investigated and fully debunked.
About all we can do is hope that other Republicans resist the temptation to back up whatever preposterous claims Trump will make if he loses, and that Democrats resist the temptation to emulate his tactics should they fall short. Neither party has a great record on this score.
On balance, I think Democrats have done better, but many of them bought into false conspiracy theories about supposedly manipulated vote counts in the 2004 election, so they’re not blameless either.
Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University