Election Experts Look Ahead
With the November general election just one month away, we’re not surprised that it’s all anyone can talk about. So, we asked a handful of election experts to talk about it more—what are they watching for, preparing for or hoping for this November?
These experts address security, voter registration, ballot processing, the role of the legislature vis-a-vis the executive branch, voter confidence and more.
Ben Hovland, Chairman, U.S. Election Assistance Commission: Election administrators have really risen to the challenge during these difficult times. The public servants that administer elections, however, can only do their best when it comes to limiting the impact of widespread misinformation and disinformation about our elections. Political campaigns and interest groups are spending billions of dollars to influence Americans, and foreign adversaries are amplifying our divisions. In the face of that, it will take Americans coming together to protect our nation, the process and voter confidence. Those who can, should help encourage Americans’ confidence in our electoral process by highlighting the great work of our election officials. Additionally, supporting efforts like the National Association of Secretaries of State’s #TrustedInfo2020 campaign are an integral part of ensuring Americans get accurate information on how to participate this year. (Note: NCSL is a partner on #TrustedInfo2020.)
Charles Stewart, Professor of Political Science, MIT: I will be watching for evidence that local jurisdictions have successfully prepared for in-person voting, by watching the wait times that emerge during early voting—a harbinger for things to come on Election Day. I’m also looking to see what the pattern of mail ballot returns will look like. It already looks like mail ballot requests will be front loaded. Will this allow local election offices to manage the surge efficiently? Finally, I will be looking to see how quickly local jurisdictions complete their vote counting, including mail and early votes. I am betting that most will prove the pundits wrong and get the mail ballots counted pretty quickly. But, if I’m wrong, it will be a long night (or week or month).
David Becker, Director and Founder, Center for Election Innovation and Research: Our research indicates that new voter registration activity took a big hit in April and May of this year, due to the pandemic and the resulting reduction in motor voter registrations and third party efforts. While the summer saw some rebound, we still haven’t seen a complete recovery from the deficit created in the early stages of the pandemic, and new voter registrations for the year are still down compared to 2016. However, there is hope—in September, the 30 states in the Electronic Registration Information Center are sending out mailers to approximately 17 million eligible but unregistered citizens, including around 7.5 million unregistered citizens in the states of Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Texas. We expect this will result in millions of new registered voters, mostly registering via efficient online voter registration, well before the registration deadlines this year. This is the largest nonpartisan voter registration outreach ever done by government itself, and we expect it to be extraordinarily effective.
David Kuennen, IT Cybersecurity Specialist, CISA Election Security Initiative: Auditability and technology issues are among the many things I will be watching for in November. Regarding auditability—what percentage of voters will cast their ballots using paper-based voting systems? Will it surpass 95% as some predict? Most jurisdictions that recently used paperless DREs have replaced them, and the expected increase in mail-in voting will further increase paper ballot usage in November. This will be an important marker of progress since 2016 towards universal auditability. As for technology issues—will election officials be able to quickly respond and effectively communicate with the public when technology issues inevitably occur on and around Election Day? People can assume the worst (cyberattacks, voter suppression, etc.) when election technology does not function as expected, and malfunctioning technology is a surefire way to grab headlines or generate re-tweets—which malign actors are sure to amplify. How election officials and their partners respond to such issues will play an important role in separating fact from fiction and combatting any dis- or misinformation in this area.
Doug Chapin, Director of Election Research, Fors Marsh Group: The 2020 election should be the final warning shot for policymakers in Washington, D.C., and in state capitols across the country to think hard about how we fund election administration in the United States. The pressures created by the COVID-19 pandemic—including both the basic need to purchase masks, hand sanitizer and other materials to protect voters and election workers, plus larger efforts associated with temporary or permanent shifts to increased voting by mail—have put a spotlight on the system (or lack thereof) for authorizing and allocating funds to support the election process. Here’s hoping Congress and state legislatures are ready to use the 2020 election experience to consider and enact new approaches—such as dedicated funding streams, standing grant programs or other vehicles—that take the guesswork out of state and local election officials’ efforts to pay for the costs of administering our nation’s elections.
J. Christian Adams, President, Public Interest Legal Foundation: New registrations can be a misleading indicator of outcome. Right now, Republicans are wildly outpacing Democrats in key swing states, including 7 to 1 in Pennsylvania. The biggest issue facing November’s election is the chaos and potential disenfranchisement caused by a push for mail ballots. The 2020 primaries have produced worrisome data—namely thousands of rejected and lost mail ballots. In Nevada, over 7,000 ballots were rejected for defects and another 200,000 went to bad addresses. Election systems should be stable and certain, and mail ballots hardly provide certainty and stability.
Jennifer Morrell, Consultant, Democracy Fund: I’ll be keeping a careful eye on ballot accounting practices—the procedures used to verify that the total number of ballots cast equals the number of voters given credit for voting. These procedures provide a way to consistently and accurately record the number of ballots at a given point in time, document acceptable differences and flag unexplained discrepancies. They apply equally to in-person voting and voting by mail or absentee voting. By requiring an accounting, you reduce the chance of voted ballots being misplaced and left uncounted. Ballot accounting also includes chain of custody procedures, documentation that indicates when and who took possession of ballots each time they are physically moved. This evidence can relieve uncertainty as to whether a ballot has been tampered with. Ballot accounting is one way we can increase trust in our elections and should become a standard part of every post-election audit practice.
Kathleen Hale, Professor of Political Science, Auburn University: How we understand local election office resources will be critical post-election 2020. During election 2020, poll site management strategies will be very visible, and we will see how offices address potential voter confusion about in-person return of mailed ballots and increased scrutiny from poll watchers and outside groups, in addition to ever-present voter registration questions. In parsing what election 2020 means, it is important to distinguish issues that embody controversial policy choices from those that stem from lack of local resources. Federal funding to state election offices for essential cybersecurity and COVID-19-related services has been most welcome and yet local election offices generally operate on a shoestring when considered against county operating budgets (the fundamental source of election funds). Election 2020 will tell us a great deal about whether those resources are adequate.
Ohio Senator Matt Huffman (R), Vice-Chair of NCSL’s Redistricting and Elections Standing Committee: I will be watching to see who Ohioans, and voters across the country, choose as their representatives because this particular election can help restore the proper balance among the different branches of government. Over the past six months, we have witnessed unprecedented use of executive power in Ohio and in states across the country. And during the 12 years I have served in the Ohio legislature, I have witnessed firsthand how the people’s representatives in legislatures continue to be bypassed. We’ve seen it in Washington, D.C. for years, but as the pandemic has continued on, we now see the same phenomenon occurring at the state level. My hope for the upcoming election is that voters make their voices heard by electing strong representatives to state legislatures and Congress who appreciate how the legislative branch of government’s role is to make the policies, while the executive branch is there to execute those policies.
New Hampshire Senator Melanie Levesque (D), Co-Chair of NCSL’s Redistricting and Elections Standing Committee: This year, 65-85% of voters will request absentee ballots due to COVID-19. Through the passage of HB 1266, the New Hampshire Legislature enabled voters to request an absentee ballot citing concern for COVID-19 and request an absentee ballot for the primary and general elections with one form. The legislation also gave our election officials the ability to pre-process absentee ballots. These changes, along with the addition of online voter registration and automated registration, must become permanent solutions. Many town and city clerk offices are closed or have limited hours because of COVID-19, making it difficult to register in person. We are fortunate to have same day registration, but we must reduce the time spent in line at the polls for public safety. No-excuse absentee ballots work, and pre-processing saves valuable time on election night. Feedback from election officials will help fine-tune these processes as we move towards more secure and modern elections.
Michael McDonald, Professor, University of Florida: The November 2020 general election will likely see record overall turnout for a modern American election and the greatest share of voters casting ballots before Election Day, particularly by mail. With so many voters casting mail ballots for the first time, there will be problems. Voters unfamiliar with their state’s mail ballot process will make mistakes. Election officials will be stressed by the unusually large number of mail ballot requests and actual ballots. To monitor these issues, I curate an early voting tracker. I’m tracking statewide mail ballot requests and returns, and—where data are available—I provide maps and statistics for a state’s localities. Depending on the state, these data include early voting activity by party registration, gender, age, race and past voting history. In a few states, I further track rejected ballots. As Election Day approaches these data will provide insights as to expected overall November turnout.
Ned Foley, Director of Election Law at Ohio State: Will the presidential election be settled in every state by December 8, the so-called “Safe Harbor Deadline” (specified by federal law in 3 U.S.C. § 5)? If so, that will mean that the presidential election will be decided according to the count of the popular vote in each state, as intended under each state’s laws. In this respect, the election will have been successful even if it took all five weeks from Nov. 3 to Dec. 8 to achieve this definitive determination of the electorate’s choice in all states. By contrast, if there remains a dispute over who won the presidency after Dec. 8, then the election enters a whole new and precarious phase in which Congress will be required to decide the election’s winner when it meets on Jan. 6. Although Congress adopted a procedure for this situation in the Electoral Count Act of 1887 (3 U.S.C. § 15), it has never been tested, and given uncertainty over its meaning one hopes that it remains untested again this year—with the election’s outcome uncontested after the Safe Harbor Deadline of Dec. 8.
Rebecca Green, Co-Director of William and Mary’s Election Law Program: One of the issues I’ll be watching closely in the lead up to November is the impact of COVID-19 on election transparency. Our democratic system relies on an open and transparent election process. State statutes mandate that representatives of candidates, political parties, citizen groups and independent organizations may observe the election process at various stages. I’m wondering how state transparency processes will play out in the age of COVID-19 when fewer people may be willing to step forward to observe in person. I am hoping state election officials prepare for safe oversight mechanisms—especially through the use of technology. This year it will be more important than ever to ensure the process is transparent to help secure public faith in outcomes.
Tammy Patrick, Senior Advisor for Elections, Democracy Fund: Conducting an election in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, has laid bare systemic challenges to the resiliency and flexibly of our election administration policy. There are a few general areas to focus on—many of them around what voters’ and election officials' options are. First, where can polls be located? States with rigid requirements around the type of facility that can be used, where the polls must be located and the number of voters registered in an area (without consideration of how many may be voting by mail or early) will have a more difficult time adjusting in the COVID-19 environment. The same holds true for who can be a poll worker. States that allow for youth poll workers, workers who do not live in the precinct and a mixture of party affiliations (where applicable) rather than rigid partisan roles will all be able to staff the polls more successfully. Third, voters who have options in how and when to vote will be better served provided the uncertainty of the times. Lastly, states that have adjusted their laws around when voters can request and return ballots and when election officials can process absentee applications and ballots will most likely not find themselves in the headlines around ballot rejections and unfulfilled requests. The Postal Service recommends voters return their ballots by mail at least one week before they are due, yet more than 20 states allow a voter to request a ballot after that time. This sets the false expectation that as long as voters request by the deadline things will be fine. States allowing for prepayment of postage, a postmark or other USPS data demonstrating the voter mailed the ballot before the close of the polls and options for voters to drop off the ballot in person will see far fewer ballots be rejected based on their state code.