Over email last week I conducted an interview with MIT Election Lab political science Prof. Charles Stewart III. We had a back-and-forth on coronavirus Election Day voting precautions and concerns, which his institute studied in a white paper they released earlier this year.
The paper decided that COVID-19 represented a significant-enough threat to normal Election Day procedures that federal agencies and local election commissions and other authorities were required to take advance measures for preparedness. Among those concerns the MIT political scientist and his fellow researchers remmended was a basic change in most in-person polling places, which makes for a radical new challenge across the country. “In order to best maintain social distancing, many jurisdictions have seen their typical polling place plans completely upended,” says the report. This, along with other special issues related to limiting spread of the virus, contribute to extenuating circumstances surrounding 2020’s presidential vote plans.
There will also be changes in waiting times, including people needing to wait, as many outlets have reported, on long in-person lines. Arrival rates could spike at certain times, or for extended periods, stressing polling stations’ service time, continues the MIT report. How many people work serving voters could be impacted by fears of contagion themselves, with no-shows higher than usual and a need for increased staffing.
America’s nightmare could come true, if as Yale author Richard Hansen predicts is possible in Election Meltdown, taking a look at what happens this year and beyond.
To avoid allegations of Russian interference as occurred in 2016, digital misinformation is a priority to ensure a safe, accepted transition of power or return to four more years of President Trump.
“Much of the work to protect the American electoral system from hacking requires years of effort before and between elections.” Further, “critical infrastructure” needs updating. States can be compelled by Article I of the Constitution, he writes, which would require them to be proactive in protecting voter registration databases and related election information.
In addition, the physical infrastructure and technology behind voting should be reaffirmed to guarantee this election doesn’t result in a “democratic disaster,” where one side sees a victory by their opponent’s side as illegitimate, or Trump refuses to leave office.
The problem is we need the incumbent to leave to implement these reforms that will only be in time for 2024, as the intervening period is required to fix systemic issues brought to the surface in an anomalous (for many reasons, including COVID-19) election year with an outsider incumbent sick, at one point, from a global pandemic, stressing voters along with the economy, which determine’s voters’ choices more than other factors, overall, as holds current political science research.
Once the tally is done, some claim we could know as early as 9:30 PM on Nov. 3, Election Day, when Florida could turn Democratic and give Biden an all-but-assured win, but officially we could need to wait until a deadline sometime in December for a formal, final tally result.
In the meantime, Hansen writes, “Unsupported claims of stolen or rigged elections should be rejected by leaders on both sides of the aisle.”
How the mechanics of voting with coronavirus is likely to play out is what I interviewed Prof. Stewart III about.
Speaking to Prof. Stewart, it is great to get his perspective in general, but especially important for readers interested in their Election Day plans.
Many journalists are worried about how the voting on the official day plays out, yet don’t address the issue directly. My query regarded his white paper research on COVID-19 Election Day preparation. His insight was enlightening.
First, I wanted to know whether in-person polling places are well prepared to handle COVID-19 contagion hotspot concerns?
“State and local agencies did a lot to prepare. Whether they did enough will only be revealed once the election happens. They have certainly been working overtime to prepare. The biggest gaps in preparation will occur in places where state legislators were unwilling to alter state laws to provide election officials the flexibility they need to adapt to the new conditions. As a consequence, states such as Pennsylvania and Texas may see delays in counting votes, or long lines at polling places, that could have been avoided.”
However, I wondered, is this possible to gauge?
“After the election, certainly. I will be conducting a survey of voters in all 50 states that will provide a glimpse into how voters fared when they voted,” he said.
Regarding a potential “democratic crisis,” which some warn we could see, from the count taking too long for a final tally, for example, he thought in reality there was little worry this could amount to a major issue.
“I think we will know results early enough to know the path that the results will take — what I call the ‘path to 270,’ for the number of electoral votes needed to elect a president. For there not to be a democratic crisis will depend on the courts looking askance at efforts to delay the count. I trust they will do so, but there is no guarantee.”
With Trump’s three conservative Supreme Court (SC) appointments, Democrats are raising the potential of a difficult dispute in state or final vote tally measures.
Prof. Stewart III then responded to how poll places get inundated at certain hours on Election Day, resulting in longer lines, with them only being able to handle a small number of people per hour, ranging from around five or six to more during normal times. Were his white paper’s recommendations implemented, and by enough states?
“I think the results will prove to be mixed. There’s sometimes wishful thinking, in the fact of limited resources, that skimping on preparations will be sufficient. We will know for sure soon enough.”
To end our interview, Prof. Stewart III thanked for me asking for his additional insight. Clearly the political scientist knows how important public knowledge is to pressuring government action on issues such as these.
“We’re seeing a huge surge in early voting. Roughly one-third of those likely to vote have already cast a ballot [as of the last week of Oct]. There have been long lines, but no significant disruptions, at least not yet. The more early voting, the easier it will be on Election Day.”
For most recent stats, the Washington Post reported this morning that, “In a year when the act of voting felt more precarious than ever, more than 94 million had voted in the 2020 election by Monday, casting their ballots early or by mail in record numbers in virtually every state in the nation.”
Lines and stress for staffing polling systems are coupled with prevention efforts against failed 2000 early election result agreement, referring to the SC intervention in Balm Beach County’s vote count total, to foreign interference, as with Russian money and manpower spent in 2016 on implementing campaigns to twist information to skew our election.
Coronavirus increased early voting, by mail in particular, drawing questions to the USPS, in particular. If either side mounts a significant challenge to the final result, those dissatisfied could point to the issues highlighted above for lack of implementing recommended changes in time. Hopefully, as with past election issues, we can learn and evolve our democratic process to best represent the American people.