By now, it should be clear: This is going to be an unusual election.
We don’t say that because of the candidates involved, but because of the circumstances under which the election will be held. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inadequacies of our voting process, as it has with many aspects of modern life. But this is not an unsolvable problem. Smart planning, key rules changes and federal dollars can produce a safe and secure election that has been our nation’s hallmark.
That’s not to say November’s vote will mirror ones of years past. With voters afraid to go to the polls in person because of the virus, more of this election will be conducted by mail than ever before. Changes to voting rules in more than 20 states since the pandemic began mean that nearly 80% of voters will be able to cast ballots by mail. That’s a welcome sea change, given that barely 20% did so in 2016.
But that surge created problems in this year’s primaries in states like Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, California and New York. Some ballots arrived after deadlines to be counted. Some lacked the required signature (on the inside envelope, in New York). Some prepaid envelopes had no postmark. Some ballots took days or weeks to count, sometimes because of court challenges, sometimes because of arcane rules for invalidating ballots. But these problems are reasons to improve the system, not abandon it.
Improving the process
The fixes are plain to see in the states that need to make them, including New York (which we will explore in depth in Monday’s editorial), and some have already started down that road. To improve the process, states should:
- Mail absentee ballots or applications to all voters, allow election boards to send them out earlier and voters to return them earlier, and allow those boards to start counting ballots before Election Day while keeping tallies secret.
- At the very least, expand eligibility for absentee voting by not forcing voters to have an excuse.
- Allow ballots postmarked by Election Day but received up to five or so days later to be counted to account for mail slowdowns, set up drop boxes so voters don’t have to use the mail, and allow voters whose mail-in ballots have technical problems like a missing signature to correct those problems so they are not unnecessarily disqualified.
- Expand online voter registration and early in-person voting to reduce lines at polling places and allow for social distancing.
- Recruit and train young people to replace older poll workers reluctant to serve during the pandemic.
- Invest in high-tech optical scanners and other infrastructure necessary to count mail-in ballots quickly.
That takes money, and Congress did provide $400 million in the first round of coronavirus relief. But legislation providing another $3.6 billion that election experts deem necessary is stuck in the Senate, blocked by Republicans doing the bidding of President Donald Trump to make voting in 2020 as difficult as possible.
Ignore Trump’s tactics
Voters must ignore Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting as rife with fraud. It’s not. An analysis of three states that vote primarily by mail found that officials identified only 372 cases of possible double voting or voting on behalf of a dead person out of 14.6 million mail-in ballots in 2016 and 2018. That’s 0.0025%.
Trump nevertheless spent months attacking mail-in voting, before hypocritically reversing course to say mail-in voting was fine in Florida and Arizona — swing states with Republican governors — while threatening lawsuits over mail-in voting in Democratic-run Nevada and California. Turns out Trump’s false attacks had GOP voters expressing an increasing unwillingness to vote by mail, and some likely would not be comfortable going to the polls, either.
Naked politics also fuels Trump’s insistence that we know final results on election night. Most likely, we will not. And that’s OK. Accurate numbers are more important than fast ones. Delays created by the need to count huge numbers of mail-in ballots do not mean the election is being rigged or that results are suspect. It means election officials are doing their jobs.
Underpinning mail-in voting is the U.S. Postal Service, which is responsible for delivering the ballots. But Trump, who has attacked the post office incessantly, recently installed as its head a big campaign donor with no postal experience who implemented new procedures that have produced two-day delays in parts of the country. He also fired or reassigned 23 top officials, robbing the Postal Service of decades of experience, and has floated the idea of charging cash-strapped states the first-class rate of 55 cents rather than the 20-cent bulk rate. It reeks of a bald attempt at sabotaging mail-in voting.
Republicans also continue efforts at voter suppression by, for example, reducing the number of polling sites in areas with high minority populations, as Georgia did in 2018. Another worry: Mail-in voting can be a tool of voter suppression. In 2016, Florida rejected ballots mailed by Black and Hispanic voters more than two-and-a-half times as often as it did ballots from white voters. Vigilance is needed.
November’s vote is beset by challenges, real and imagined. But they are not beyond our ability as a nation to solve, if we want to solve them.
— The editorial board