Interviews with more than a dozen state officials, former federal officials, voting rights activists and lawyers will require major changes in all 50 states to conduct the first pandemic-ridden presidential election in American history.
At best, the pandemic subsides in summer and the country holds relatively normal November elections. However, some experts are considering doomsday scenarios, including attempts to postpone the election, a series of litigation and a constitutional crisis.
“The elections must continue at all costs,” said CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “This is not the NBA season or the Olympics. We have to vote in November. If we can vote in the middle of the civil war and if Franklin D. Roosevelt can run for an unprecedented fourth term in the middle of the year.” In the Second World War we can then find out how we can make 2020 a free and fair choice. “
Preparation for the “perfect storm”
“We don’t know what the future will be like,” said Matthew Petersen, who was a member of the federal election commission for eleven years and was appointed by a Republican president. “If the virus is still widespread this fall, ballot papers in crowded polling stations, which are mainly run by older and vulnerable poll workers, will result in a perfect storm in which the virus will spread.”
However, cleanliness is only part of the equation, and fixing the overall problem won’t be easy. Constitutional issues play a role. Legislators will also be forced to consider laws that will make it easier for Americans to vote, but may weaken their party’s chances of winning.
State governments have taken their own steps, including postponing the primaries, changing polling stations, switching to postal voting, and recruiting younger poll workers. But government officials are trying to find out who has the power to adjust election protocols during an emergency.
The states want to promote postal voting
A trio of primaries last week presented a case study of what a pandemic election looks like.
“Postal voting is much more resilient in times of crisis,” said former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican who oversaw several nationwide universal postal voting elections. “It enables people to choose so that they can maintain social distance.”
Another 28 states and the District of Columbia offer “excuse-free” voting by mail, meaning that any voter can get a postal vote if they request one. States with stricter laws require voters to apologize – under penalty of perjury – for why they cannot appear in the elections.
The urge to vote by post was mainly led by democrats in liberal countries.
But this week, Republican governor of Ohio Mike DeWine advocated a plan to send a postal voting application form to all registered voters before the June area code. Republican Foreign Minister of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, also said he would send postal ballot applications to all voters who can apply for postal ballot papers for the May and November primary elections. This could lead to a dramatic shift in a state where typically only about 5% of voters vote by post.
Arizona will be a test of whether these ideas are supported by two parties: the Democratic Secretary of State has asked GOP-controlled lawmakers to approve November all-mail elections.
No silver balls
Despite the advantages, postal voting can be complicated and there are pitfalls. According to the CNN, states that rely on postal voting have spent years, not months, of switching to the new system.
There are two forms of postal voting: There is a two-step process in which voters first apply for postal voting and then send a vote home (like the new proposals in Ohio and Georgia). In one step, local officials automatically send ballot papers to all registered voters, and voters simply send them back (e.g., the Colorado and Oregon systems).
Once the ballots have been returned, they are checked through a process called “curing”. Every voter has to sign his postal vote, and this signature is then compared with the deposited signature. This ensures that the voter is who he says he is. If there is a discrepancy, a notification will be sent back to the voter, who will be able to fix the problem. However, this process can take some time.
Berman and the other experts who spoke to CNN said postal ballot papers are more likely to be rejected than ballot papers delivered to polling stations. This is because the polling stations are staffed by volunteers and officials who can solve local problems. Ballots can also be wrongly rejected if a state does not have a strong database of signatures that verify the identity of voters.
If the corona virus continues to spread unchecked in the fall, Congress could consider postponing the general election, although Democrats and Republicans would have to work together.
“The authors thought that because people in the states would physically vote, they should give that power to the states,” said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional scientist who testified at the impeachment hearings for Trump and President Bill Clinton. “It’s an efficiency measure. It created a federal government review against counterfeit voting to help those in power stay in power.”
The constitution does not specify when elections are to be held. But it does require Trump’s term in office to expire on January 20, 2021, regardless of whether an election takes place in November.
“The heart of our democracy is our elections,” said Brinkley. “Without our elections, we are a totalitarian nation. By holding our November elections, it actually saves America.”
EXPLANATION: The story has been updated to clarify the timing of the postal voting changes in Georgia.