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The Latest 2020 Disaster: How Can the Upcoming Election Go Wrong?

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Disclaimer: this article was written in September 2020, there will have been changes to information since then.

Photo by Element5 Digital

Elections have always had a history of problems. From discrimination to voter suppression to technical issues, elections have never been perfect—and given that COVID-19 has already impacted pretty much every aspect of our lives, is it really any surprise that the upcoming general election is no exception? According to the Pew Research Center, approximately half of voters expect difficulties voting. That’s up about 35% from 2018. Here are some of the problems the 2020 election is facing:

We’ll start with the most obvious concern: coronavirus. In an America engulfed in a pandemic, going to a polling place can be a safety hazard. To make up for this, many states have changed their voting rules to accommodate people. One of the biggest changes is to absentee voting. In case you don’t know what that is, absentee voting is for people who can’t make it to a polling place—depending on where they are, they can either vote by mail or have someone else cast their ballot. However, voters must have an valid excuse; these usually include age (65+), location (traveling, out of the country, etc.), and disabilities or illness.

A large number of states have either turned to no-excuse absentee ballots, at least temporarily, which means you don’t need a reason to cast an absentee ballot, or have amended the list of eligible excuses to include COVID. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “mail-in voting”—this is a broader term that includes, but is not limited to, absentee voting, and has come into more common use because it better applies to the recent adjustments. However, this is not the case everywhere. In three states (Indiana, Mississippi, and Texas), you still need an excuse that isn’t corona, or even medical vulnerability to the virus, while multiple others only cite vulnerability, meaning that people will have to choose between voting and their safety.

And even if you do live in a state that allows mail-in voting (luckily for us, California has decided to automatically send all registered voters mail-in ballots), the system isn’t assured. In fact, the president has raised concerns about voter fraud stemming from mail-in voting. Experts have assured that mail-in voter fraud is nothing to worry about (a study by MIT found only 143 convictions of voter fraud via absentee ballot, which amounts to only a 0.00006% of all votes cast over that time period). However, making sure your mail-in vote is counted is a concern. One main reason why some of the presidential primaries failed so spectacularly was because a huge number of votes were invalidated. In New York’s June 23 primary, thousands of ballots were disqualified because they were missing a postmark. Mail-in ballots need postmarks to ensure they were cast by the deadline, but this has a couple of issues. One, not all mail is postmarked. This includes business class mail and prepaid postage, the latter of which is often included on ballot return envelopes. Second is that postmarks are not always legible, and while that isn’t the voter’s fault, it could still result in the ballot being rejected.

Another problem with mail-in voting is that the deadlines set in 35 states for requesting ballots do not match up with the time it will take to receive and mail them. It’s likely that someone who requests a ballot at the last minute in these states will get it too late for it to count, which is extremely misleading. Recent issues with the Post Office have raised concerns that the USPS will not be able to handle the influx of mail-in ballots. The newly appointed Postmaster General has made several changes that have caused postal workers to raise red flags. These changes include cuts to overtime, which means mail isn’t always able to be sorted or delivered on time; a mandate that drivers stick to schedule, causing mail to be left behind; removal of mail sorting machines, causing slowages; removal of mail collection boxes; reduced hours of operation; and a withdrawal of guidelines that treat election mail as priority.

The overall effect is that mail has been greatly slowed, which means that requested ballots might arrive later than expected. It also means delays for submitted ballots, which is a huge issue in states where ballots must arrive by a certain date to be counted (of course it’s an issue everywhere, but even more so in such states). People who request their ballot and mail it on time may have a wrench thrown in the works due to no fault of their own if the delays affect their ballot, perhaps even causing it to be late and discounted. Finally, depositing your ballot at the post office doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be postmarked the same day, especially with the overtime cuts. In states where the ballots must only be postmarked by a certain day, this can create issues. For all of these reasons, it has been advised to 1) not wait until the last minute, and 2) make sure that your ballot is postmarked by having it done manually in front of your own eyes.

President Trump’s own concerns about mail-in voting prompted him to recommend voting twice to make sure your vote is counted. He urged North Carolinians to vote by mail and in person on September 2. A day later, he tweeted to “…go to your Polling Place to see whether or not your Mail In Vote has been Tabulated (Counted). … If it has not been Counted, VOTE (which is a citizen’s right to do). If your Mail In Ballot arrives after you Vote, which it should not, that Ballot will not be used or counted in that your vote has already been cast…” Not only is this not true—voting in person does not cancel out a mail-in ballot—but voting twice is illegal, even a felony in some states. It’s unclear whether voters will heed his words, but if they do, double voting could be a significant issue.

On the other hand, mail-in voting is not the only method that has issues. Judging by the example the primaries set, making it to the polling place will be even harder this year. According to Pew, 58% of poll workers are over 60 years old, which means that they are at higher risk for COVID. In 2018, approximately two thirds of jurisdictions said it wasn’t easy to find poll workers, and that was before the pandemic. In April, thousands of Wisconsin poll workers decided not to work. As a result, Milwaukee was only able to open 5 polling places out of their usual 180. All over the country, conditions were similar. In Georgia, people waited up to five hours to cast their ballot—or they gave up and didn’t vote at all.

And, to top it all off, election security is once again a concern. Although it may not be at the forefront of voters’ minds due to the crisis at hand, foreign interference continues from Russia, China, and Iran. In July, an adviser from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cautioned that our election system still has serious security gaps, especially at the state and local level. Other experts have also been warning that foreign entities could disrupt the election by contributing to our already chaotic system—messing up voter registration rolls as one example. More recently, on September 10, Microsoft warned that hackers have been actively targeting both campaigns. They found that Chinese hackers were attacking private email accounts belonging to Biden’s campaign staff as well as other members from other prominent organizations. Russian hackers have also been targeting private email accounts from both sides, and Iran has been after Trump’s campaign. Although there’s been no evidence that any attacks were successful, it’s clear election security is a serious issue.

Nevertheless, don’t let this stop you from casting your ballot. If there’s one thing that everyone agrees upon, it’s that voting is crucial, especially this year. Experts are currently tackling these issues. Voters need only make sure they are informed, prepared, and on time to make sure the election goes as smoothly as possible.

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