With less than six weeks before early voting starts in the U.S. presidential election, the risk of an electoral meltdown is rising along with the country’s coronavirus caseload.
As they scramble to avert disaster, American officials may want to look overseas for guidance. Since the pandemic shut down daily life around the globe in March, 17 countries have managed to pull off successful nationwide elections, albeit on a far smaller scale than the U.S. one scheduled for Nov. 3.
The experiences of electoral authorities around the world show that the risks to pandemic-era voting are predictable and can be prevented — or at least managed — by taking practical steps: delivering funding for additional polling workers and polling places; ensuring more and easier ways to vote; conducting public information campaigns about what’s changing; taking safety measures from masks to outdoor lines; and allowing officials to begin processing mail ballots before election night.
The challenge in the United States is getting all 50 states and numerous territories on the same page when it comes to making the necessary adjustments. While the vast majority of countries have single national election authorities, the U.S. election system is uniquely decentralized, governed by a patchwork of 3,100 counties.
And time is running out for those local election officials to take the kinds of steps necessary to ensure a smooth election day in November — or election weeks, given that many states now have extended early voting periods, starting in September. Richard L. Hasen, the lead author of an April report into fair elections in a crisis, said in an email that after watching the U.S. primary season unfold, he now believes “the report understated the danger” to November’s election.
Extra cost for fair elections
“We are asking election officials to run a completely different election than they expected,” said Lawrence Norden, head of electoral reform at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Those adjustments come with a price tag: The Brennan Center for Justice estimated earlier this year that governments will need an extra $2 billion to cover everything from overtime for U.S. Postal Service workers to printer cartridges at polling places. State and local governments, however, are also facing budget shortfalls thanks to Covid-19. Congressional negotiations for a new emergency funding package are the “last opportunity” to fix the situation, Norden said.
New Zealand is spending $19 million to fund additional staff and safety measures for its parliamentary elections next month, said Claire Pasley, an electoral commission spokesperson. That’s a cost of around $6.20 for each expected voter. American authorities would need to spend around $750 million to match New Zealand’s investment, based on 2016 turnout.
While the pandemic is likely to increase election costs in 2020, investing in things like expanded mail-in voting can deliver longer term savings. A Pew Charitable Trusts report found that after Colorado adopted universal mail-in voting in 2008, costs decreased 40 percent — $16 per vote to $9.56 — over a six-year period.
Expand the size and number of polling places
The clearest lesson from abroad is that more polling places are needed to cope with demand and ensure social distancing.
Globally, there’s been little indication that voters are sitting out 2020 elections due to the pandemic. While French voters shunned the first round of mayoral elections in March, the same week the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 pandemic, voter turnout for South Korea’s parliamentary election in April reached a 28-year high, at 67 percent. And in Singapore turnout hit 95 percent in its July 10 parliamentary election, despite the fact that the country was experiencing a second wave of infection.
Ahead of its September 19 national election, New Zealand is tripling the number of advance polling places for voters, and ensuring one polling place per 2,000 citizens on election day. Voters may vote at any polling station across the country, including at nursing homes. In France’s nationwide mayoral elections, conducted over two rounds in March and April, enough polling places were set up to ensure a maximum of 800 to 1,000 voters in each polling place in nearly all cases.
Many U.S. states, however, have been shrinking the number of polling places in recent years. In 2016, local officials operated 116,990 polling places, down from 132,237 polling places in 2008. The pandemic has intensified that trend.
Georgia’s primary election in June underscores the risk of reducing polling places. Voters in some condensed Atlanta precincts waited more than four hours to cast ballots, thwarted by broken machines and inadequate staffing. A majority of voters in the city are Black. And Georgia was not alone. In Nevada’s Clark County, home to Las Vegas and a population of 2.2 million people, just three polling places were open, leading to lines of up to seven hours.
Making voting easier
With Covid-19 still spreading rapidly across the U.S., in-person voting could not only prove a hassle but also a health risk in November. That’s led to a push to allow more people to avoid polling places and instead vote absentee. But mail-in voting has become a political football, with President Donald Trump and some of his conservative supporters claiming, without evidence, that strategies such as sending out mail-in ballots to all registered voters will lead to massive fraud.
Mail-in voting is far from universally accepted around the world, but nearly all countries are moving to make more voting options possible.
In the biggest election so far in 2020, one in four South Koreans voted early, either by mail or at early voting stations. There was no evidence of fraud. However, South Korea relied on voting in embassies and consulates for its citizens living abroad, and found themselves at the mercy of local Covid-19 lockdowns, disenfranchising at least 8,000 registered voters.
In Poland, the lower house of Parliament voted to approve an all-mail ballot for this year’s presidential election, but the Senate rejected the move just days before the vote was due to take place in May, forcing the election to be delayed. It eventually took place seven weeks later, via a mix of in-person and mail voting.
In Europe, the United Kingdom and 15 of the 27 EU countries allow postal voting. Germany, which has a federal system comparable to the United States, dropped requirements to request absentee and mail ballots in 2008.
Mail voting fraud of the kind Trump has warned about is occasionally detected in Europe, but is considered a marginal problem — as it is in the U.S. A 2016 independent review on election security commissioned by the British Government recommended that voters be required to drop off their absentee ballots. The reason they cited: “pressure being put on vulnerable members of some ethnic minority communities, particularly women and young people, to vote according to the will of the elders.” Britain also recorded instances of party activists collecting multiple blank postal ballots and completing them on behalf of voters in 2005.
One innovation has helped ease some conservatives’ concerns about the security of mail-in voting: the 24-hour drop box. Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey this week used a secure drop box to vote by mail in his state’s primary. A July survey, conducted by DC-based political data firm Citizen Data, found that GOP voters in Ohio preferred returning their ballot via drop box rather than relying on the Postal Service. According to CEO Mindy Finn, around three in four voters from each party intend to vote absentee — but ”72 percent of Democrats will mail in their ballots, and 69 percent of Republican will return via secure drop-box.”
Keeping voters safe
Around the world, 2020 polling stations have typically required voters to wear masks and practice physical distancing while waiting in line, made hand sanitizer available at entries and exits and conducted regularly cleanings.
South Korean polling workers performed temperature checks at polling entrances, while Singapore’s election department made special arrangements, such as recommending time slots for each voter to reduce congestion, creating a special voting hour for those isolating due to Covid-19 exposure, and extending voting until 10 p.m. New Zealand is encouraging voters to bring their own pen to mark ballot papers.
Avoiding staffing struggles
Along with new procedures, elections thus far this year have reinforced the need for trained staff prepared to actually carry out new measures and manage new infrastructure. Staff error and confusion were at the heart of voting delays in Georgia’s June primary. Complicating matters further, many of the seniors that normally sign up to work at the polls are opting out in 2020, given their higher risk from the coronavirus.
“You need to over-hire and expect some cancellations, and you need to raise the pay of poll workers, too,” Norden said.
New Zealand officials are recruiting 25,000 staff for their upcoming election, paying them between $15 and $21 per hour. For the U.S. to match New Zealand’s staffing level, local officials would need to recruit around 1.35 million poll workers in the coming weeks, an increase of more than 400,000 compared to 2016, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission figures.
Emergency powers and delays
Trump’s talk of delaying the November election raised alarm bells in the U.S., even among some of his staunchest allies. But election delays have been common in 2020 in other countries, ranging from a single day in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu to over four months in Sri Lanka.
New Zealand is connecting its election planning to its system of national Covid-19 alert levels. “If an outbreak occurs during the voting period, there are some emergency powers available to the Chief Electoral Officer to delay election day voting by up to seven days at a time,” according to the New Zealand Electoral Commission authority.
In the United States, however, the timing of the election is considered sacrosanct. Congress designated the first Tuesday in November as election day in 1845, beginning a 175-year tradition.
Avoiding a misinformation vacuum
Many countries prohibit election ads in the days leading up to their elections. Pre-pandemic, at least 45 countries enforced these so-called “blackouts.” Singapore banned advertising the day before and day of voting in July — hoping to reduce any pandemic-related misinformation.
There’s no way that’s happening in the U.S., however. A 1992 Supreme Court ruling ruling protects political speech during election campaigns, with restrictions allowed only in the immediate vicinity of polling places.
Separate from the official campaign ads, partisans and bad actors continue to spread falsehoods about the U.S. election on social media. To make matters worse, the U.S., unlike nearly every other democracy, lacks a single national elections administrator. So there’s no one office or website that’s the “official word” on the election process. The UCI report said this “may help to create an information vacuum in which misinformation can thrive”
For many Americans, voting this year will be different, whether it’s how they receive their ballots or how their votes are counted and reported. “With so many changes, it’s an atmosphere that’s ripe for misinformation” warned Norden.
Count quickly and transparently
Americans are accustomed to a level of speed in vote counting that is unusual around the world. The U.S. stands out among democracies for its widespread use of machines to count votes. South Korea uses the type of optical scanners common in the United States, but many countries continue to rely on hand counts.
Election experts agree that counting delays can sow confusion among voters. That’s especially likely if vote margins shift as counting progresses, compared to results reported on election night. And it makes speed and transparency key to maintaining trust in the election process.
In Poland, where the incumbent President Andrzej Duda eked out a victory in the country’s July 12 election, authorities finalized the results within 24 hours. However, after numerous complaints were filed — including over 11,500 ballot papers with late postmarks and over 30,000 missing ballots in Britain (home to a large Polish population) — the opposition challenged the election results in court. Poland’s Supreme Court upheld 93 out of 5,800 complaints in an August 2 ruling that validated the election result.
A University of California report recommends that mail ballots be opened and stacked — “everything short of the final tabulation” — before voting closes, to ensure a quicker count on election night. Most U.S. states allow at least basic processing of mail ballots, such as signature verification, to occur before election day. Some, such as Maryland, ban counting even on election night, delaying it until the morning after. If a state won’t allow early processing of mail ballots, officials can reduce distrust by publishing daily information about absentee and provisional ballot counting and the number of ballots remaining to be counted.
In the absence of a single federal election authority, the American news media plays a bigger role in tallying and announcing election results than in most countries. That role will be even more prominent if the final election result is not known for days or weeks after Nov. 3. Such delays are common in parliamentary systems, where the leading party often fails to win a majority of seats and must form a coalition to govern, but the uncertainty tends to be around which parties will join a governing coalition, rather than who won parliament seats.
Amber McReynolds, CEO at the non-profit Vote At Home, who set up Colorado’s universal vote-by-mail system in 2013, urges patience from the media. McReynolds wants news outlets to “let voters vote without being influenced by the news,” a position that’s hard to enforce when voting takes place across six time zones. She thinks network television’s rush to call the election for East Coast late night news programs has always been unfair to those still voting in places like Alaska and Hawaii, who are hours behind.
In 2020, reporters may have no choice but to wait — Democratic voters in New York’s 12th congressional district just learned this week who won their primary, six weeks after the June 23 election.