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If Americans are to have a proper election in November, these five things have to happen

The world is watching

Lindsay Newman
Washington DC
Thursday 07 May 2020 17:16 BST
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Trump cannot legally cancel or delay the election
Trump cannot legally cancel or delay the election (AP)

With every day that passes, the US inches closer to holding one of the most pivotal elections in a generation in the midst of a global pandemic. The internal models of the Trump administration (details of which were released this week) suggest that by June the daily death toll could reach 3,000 people, with daily infection rates of 200,000. With the US elections now less than six months away, the likelihood that Covid-19 will be in the rearview when ballots are cast in November is narrowing.

After the Supreme Court ruled against an extension of its absentee voting period, the Wisconsin primary in April laid bare the tradeoff voters face between their health and their right to vote. Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters still went to the polls on election day (although many more voted absentee), and 52 voters and poll workers subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

As I have said repeatedly over recent months, US federal and state authorities must start planning now for how to hold an election in this midst of this public health crisis. Here are five measures that should be set in motion as soon as possible:

A federally-mandated standard for absentee/mail-in balloting

An obvious place to start in thinking about conducting elections in a Covid-19 world is with voting access. If voting in person is untenable or risky (especially for vulnerable health populations), voters must have alternative means to cast their ballots.

Each state has the authority to set its own voting regulations. While all states allow for some form of voting by absentee ballots, access to absentee voting varies meaningfully amongst them. Even as the number of people voting outside of polling stations has increased over recent electoral cycles, only two-thirds of states currently allow for no-excuse absentee balloting, and a mere five states automatically mail ballots to all state voters for all elections.

Moving to a federal standard of no-excuse absentee balloting, mailed ballots to all voters, and protracted early voting, even if just for the 2020 elections, is essential to protect voting access. The US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has set out a vote by mail project timeline of more than 100 tasks for November’s elections. The timeline called upon policymakers to start taking decisions in April to provide for a timely rollout. Continued delay raises risks that all eligible voters will not have absentee voting access for November.

Public-private partnerships to counter election misinformation

The potential intersections between the Covid-19 outbreak and election security are complicated by both the newness of the pandemic and the innovation that goes into election interference. But as election campaigns and the voting process become more virtual and less in-person, new avenues for malign election activity will be exploited.

With socially distanced voters getting more information during this election season virtually, information security will be critical. Collective measures — including leadership from and partnerships with the private sector — to counter misinformation will be more costly than expected but as essential.

Robust election infrastructure protection

As part of the 2020 appropriations package, Congress earmarked $425 million for state-level election security enhancements to be administered by the EAC. Without knowing exactly what is in store from a cyber-threat perspective, the actual cost for basic election security upgrades is estimated to be $2.153 billion.

Opportunities for potential cyber intrusions are likely to increase, especially as we transition to greater absentee and mail-in balloting. Robust, tested technology to better protect US election infrastructure that has already been called for (on voter registration systems, voter databases, voting machines) will face greater pressure in a world where in-person coordination may be limited and the country as a whole faces a public health crisis and economic recovery.

Safeguards for the US postal service

If more votes are cast remotely this election season, the US postal service (USPS) will face an unplanned surge in demand for its services. New and additional responsibilities around ballot chain of custody will also fall to the USPS. These expanded duties will come even as the USPS is facing financial distress, and has said it will not be able to meet payroll and continue uninterrupted mail service beyond September.

An inability of the USPS to ensure mail delivery into November will be catastrophic for voters relying on it to transmit securely their ballots by state election deadlines. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act did not provide funding for the USPS, after the Trump administration reportedly threatened to block the legislation if it included money for the postal agency. A $10 billion federal loan from the Treasury Department has been conditioned on the postal service raising its rates to compete with private delivery services.

The USPS cannot be allowed to fail, especially now. Sufficient federal funding must be made available to ensure the postal agency can continue delivering mail (including ballots) safely.

Clear verification standards and tested technology

The 2020 primary season started with the Iowa caucus in which a mobile application intended to tally and report results malfunctioned. The fallout was immediate, including delays in declaring a winner, recounts, questions around accuracy, and calls for Iowa (and caucuses) to no longer play an outsized role in the primary process.

Increasing numbers of remote voters will put added pressure on states around electoral process verification. On the ‘front end’, states will face demands on processing voter identification affidavits (accurately), including steps to resolve potential discrepancies remotely. A federally directed push to expand automatic voter registration programs would reduce these burdens.

On the ‘back end’, states will need to have transparent accountings of their vote tallies even as voting is likely to be less centralized. Any innovations, both low and high-tech, must be tested and retested for effectiveness to avoid an Iowa 2.0 on a larger, more significant scale.

Finally, while we are putting together our to-do list, President Donald Trump must continue to confirm that he will hold the elections on 3rd November (he does not have the legal, constitutional authority to delay them), and Republicans and Democrats alike should affirm they will respect state and federal election results. US election integrity has never been held so much in the balance. And the world is watching.

Lindsay Newman is a Senior Research Fellow in the US and the Americas Program at Chatham House

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