The Election of Doubt
Nearly three in five Americans don’t have confidence in the honesty of our elections, a February Gallup poll found. Republicans, Democrats, state officials, grandmothers, first-time voters, the politically engaged, the anti-institutionalists—pretty much the only thing they could agree on was their doubts about the integrity of our democracy.
And that was before the pandemic made everything worse. Now, on top of questions from President Trump about the legitimacy of the election, Russian interference, persistent claims of supposed fraud, and a history of voter suppression, there are all sorts of new worries because of the coronavirus pandemic: long lines, unsafe sites, canceled elections and closed voting locations, absentee ballots faked or claimed to be faked, a collapse of a voting infrastructure that’s being haphazardly reassembled on the fly.
Whoever your pick for president is, if the other guy wins, will you really believe it? Will you trust the margin? Will you trust the results of the lower-level races, with fewer voters and less public attention? When it takes hours or even days to get the results (as is already true in many states), will your faith in the system hold?
Many Americans’ won’t. Democratic officials are responding to that doubt by moving to expand voting as much as they can. Republican officials are responding by trying to shape who gets to vote and how.
“There are a lot of uncertainties in this time,” Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan secretary of state, told me a few weeks ago. “Democracy could be one of them.”
On May 20, Benson woke up to Donald Trump misinterpreting her decision to mail absentee-ballot applications to everyone in her state. He tweeted that she was mailing absentee ballots (which he later corrected), and that she was doing so “illegally and without authorization,” which didn’t make sense. Then he claimed that he was going to hold up funding to Michigan, though there’s no funding for him to hold up, and that absentee ballots constituted voter fraud, though he’d used one himself earlier this year, to vote in Florida’s presidential primary. He issued the same threat to Nevada, then seemed to back off, then struggled in an Oval Office appearance to explain what he was talking about. In the days since, the president, who has repeatedly claimed that the election he won was rigged against him, has tweeted several more accusations of fraud, and on Tuesday in the Rose Garden insisted that people who can’t legally vote are going to be sent ballots in California, though they won’t be.
That kind of thinking seeps in, even among Trump’s opponents. Joe Walsh, the former congressman who briefly ran a primary challenge against Trump, said that he sees a strategy already in motion to “cause unrest and division.”
“Just like we lacked the imagination to understand how big this virus was going to be, I worry that we lack the imagination to fully understand what this asshole is capable of doing,” Walsh, who’s never subtle about his feelings toward the president, told me.
But you don’t have to buy into Trump’s nonsense about voting by mail to worry about the integrity of the election. Americans are worried about all sorts of things that could affect the outcome in November: that they’ll be risking infection to vote in a pandemic; that their absentee ballots won’t be received; that others will submit fake absentee ballots; that there will be funny business in the counting process. Officials say there will be insufficient resources to pay for the staff and infrastructure needed to secure and tally the ballots.
And that’s just voting by mail. People are also worried that polling places might not be adequately staffed in urban areas; that some voters may have to wait in line for hours, six feet apart, to vote in person; that dirty tricksters could advertise the wrong date for the election or stand, coughing, outside of polling places; that armed protesters will intimidate people trying to vote.
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is worried. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I’m also not for pretending that voter suppression doesn’t exist,” she told me in an interview for The Ticket recently. “To the extent that there are those who are working to undermine that, they are creating the context in which people cannot have confidence in the election.” Tom Fitton, the president of the right-wing Judicial Watch, is worried too. He told me he’d seen pictures of mailboxes overflowing with unsecured absentee ballots in New Jersey, and warned me that a study his group conducted several years ago found millions more registered names than there were eligible voters. “The elections weren’t secure before the coronavirus, and now we have politicians of both parties taking advantage of panic to flood the system with bad proposals [to change the system],” Fitton said. “If the election contest is extremely close, you will have partisans of both sides raising doubts, depending on whose ox is being gored.”
Elections officials have the Russians to worry about, too. That interference could be indirect, with strategic hacks of private information, or it could escalate to direct hacking of election systems. Other countries will probably try to interfere as well—and maybe even homegrown hackers with their own agenda.
We almost certainly won’t know who won the presidency on Election Night. We definitely won’t know who won many of the lower-level races. In 2018, a Senate race in Arizona didn’t get settled for a week. Some House races were still being decided around Christmas. Inevitably, pockets of margin-shifting votes will pop up late, giving some people the false impression that they’re suddenly appearing in convenient spots to change the results; a few House races like this in 2018 generated complaints from Trump and others that something funny must be happening. In 2009, Senator Al Franken wasn’t sworn in until July because a court fight went on for months over the close election the previous November in Minnesota.
That’s if the systems function correctly. If you haven’t started thinking about a potential repeat of the 2000 election, when the margin was small enough and the stakes high enough that the Supreme Court unilaterally ended the vote count in Florida and picked a president, then you’re behind many operatives and lawyers who are already gearing up for November.
“Folks on the left and the right generally have different ideas about who is cheating, but a lot of folks believe there’s still cheating going on. Something like this, when people in general are more concerned and fears writ large are great, you bet it’s going to be a real challenge. We have to get out in front of it,” Brian Hughes, a Republican state senator from Texas, told me.
Hughes was leading the push against expanding voting by mail in his state before the pandemic, and continues to now. To explain why he’s worried, he cited recent examples of hyper-local elections in Texas in which Democrats were accused of cheating, and the 2018 North Carolina House race in which Republicans used fraudulent mail-in ballots to try to steal the election.
Democrats in Texas are pursuing a lawsuit to force the state to expand voting by mail. Hughes and others are fighting it. “As long as I can remember, the potential for fraud with mail ballots is higher. You bet that would be a concern. That’s why there’s going to be a resistance,” he told me.
That resistance is strong in many places, including in Minnesota, where Democrats have been pushing for legislation that would establish universal voting by mail.
“The easier we make it for people to vote, the more people will vote. The more people who vote, the more the results reflect the will of the people. And isn’t that democracy?” says Nick Frentz, a Democratic state senator in Minnesota who is pushing for an expansion of voting by mail. “If the question is does high voter turnout cut against one party, what kind of argument is that? That doesn’t go to the spirit or letter of our Constitution.”
The election is in 160 days. That’s usually not enough time to pass new laws, let alone build new voting infrastructure, and it’s certainly not enough time to test any of these systems before they are implemented. And most state legislatures are now working remotely, slowing them down even more.
Take Georgia, where bowling alleys have reopened, but the governor has delayed a scheduled election. Or think back to what happened in Wisconsin in April, right as the first wave of infections hit: the Republican state legislature refused to reschedule an election, Democrats sued to facilitate voting by mail, the Supreme Court intervened to cut back some of the allowances that had been made, and voters were left standing for hours in the rain wrapped in homemade personal protective equipment. The state assembly’s speaker showed up wearing a mask, a gown, and gloves to do interviews about how “incredibly safe” it was to vote.
In the end, the election went better for the Democrats than they had dreamt; they won a state Supreme Court seat that had been considered a lost cause. But afterward, Democratic Representative Mark Pocan was still feeling shaken. I asked him whether he thought that the problems would be fixed by November, and whether he thought he’d have faith in the election then.
He sighed heavily.
“I can’t say that yet,” he said. “I’m worried.