By Garrett M. Graff via Politico
In a campaign year marked by a global pandemic, a recession and a national wave of protests, it’s easy to forget that this whole election season began with an absolute debacle when it came to the simple act of voting.
The mobile app used for the Democratic caucuses in Iowa collapsed so badly that the country was left unsure—forever, as it turns out—who won. In March, malfunctioning voting technology in California led to hourslong delays; in April, the pandemic left Wisconsin voters unsure the night before whether the polls would even open. By May, unable to guarantee the safety of physical voting, 16 states had delayed their primaries or switched to vote-by-mail options. Then came Georgia’s primary in June, where massive confusion and long lines led to what observers called a “meltdown.” Some people waited in line to cast their ballots until 1 a.m.
Every month of this year has brought new evidence that voting in 2020 hasn’t been going very well. And with perhaps the most consequential election in generations—when the nation ratifies or rejects President Donald Trump’s divisive agenda—experts are starting to believe that the general election will be much, much worse.
People often deploy the “perfect storm” metaphor incorrectly, using it to describe a surprise collision of events that catches its victims off guard.
Anxious Democrats are already fretting about nightmare scenarios in which Trump uses emergency powers to cancel the election, calls in the military to “oversee” voting, or even refuses to vacate the White House. But conversations with more than a dozen campaign strategists, security officials and election administrators make clear that the most likely picture this fall is something less theatrical, and every bit as destabilizing. November 3, even if it proceeds as scheduled, is likely to bring bureaucratic snafus and foreseeable chaos unfolding on a hundred different fronts at once, in a thousand voting precincts—all of which will leave the U.S. with its most uncertain, disputed result in a lifetime.
People often deploy the “perfect storm” metaphor incorrectly, using it to describe a surprise collision of events that catches its victims off guard. But that’s not how perfect storms really work: In Sebastian Junger’s book about a deadly Atlantic Ocean gale that popularized the term, the storm was a well-foreseen event, with serious warnings, that people saw coming and chose instead to ignore—until it was too late, and the waves overwhelmed them. That’s how this election is starting to look to experts.
What’s likely to go wrong, and is there any way to head it off?
Conversations with election specialists and security officials, plus analysis of recent government reports, make clear that there are eight distinct but connected challenges. At the technical end are the uncertain new voting technologies and processes put in place for the pandemic; on the geopolitical end, we face foreign adversaries energized by their success sowing confusion in 2016. And at the center is the unprecedented human factor: The dislocations and risks associated with voting in an uncontrolled viral outbreak.
“My biggest concern for the fall election is an election administrator’s job is to convince the losers that they lost.”- Kim Wyman
Add to that a year that has already seen unprecedented street protests and vivid displays of political violence, and an incumbent president who has already been impeached for attempting dirty tricks in this election, and who is uniquely likely to cast doubt on the results if he loses, and you have a combustible recipe.
A handful of public officials have been trying to sound the alarm, such as Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has made an issue of election security and recently warned that the country could be headed toward “an electoral Chernobyl.”
Many of the election experts interviewed for this story asked to speak anonymously to voice candid fears they didn’t want to be associated with their employers. Some have been more forthcoming about how hard it will be for the nation to agree on what happens next.
“My biggest concern for the fall election is an election administrator’s job is to convince the losers that they lost,” Washington’s Republican secretary of state, Kim Wyman, told me this spring during an event at the Aspen Institute, where I head its cybersecurity initiatives. “I guarantee you that half of the country cannot conceive that Republicans can win in November. The other half of the country cannot conceive that Democrats can win.”
All of the following are utterly foreseeable. And keep in mind, none of these weigh the X factor of a truly unexpected event—who, after all, had the 2016 election hinging on Anthony Weiner’s laptop?
1. An Uncontrolled Pandemic
Americans have never voted at a moment when it felt so unsafe just to stand in a group. No vaccine for the novel coronavirus will be widely available by November, and the health environment could well be riskier than it is now, as the spread of Covid-19 widens and collides with the traditional flu season.
Tens of millions of people will vote in person come November—whether by choice, or because their state offers no alternative—and polling places are staffed in person, and the virus is almost surely to cause critical challenges on both fronts. The virus strikes old people hardest, and most U.S. poll workers are elderly volunteers—the Center for Public Integrity found this spring that more than half in the last presidential election were 61 or older.
Many have already decided it won’t be safe: In last Tuesday’s primary in Maine, Bangor’s city clerk told the Center for Public Integrity nearly a third of traditional poll workers told her that they won’t be available. Charles Thayer was one: He’d worked elections for the past 18 years, but because of his wife’s compromised immune system, he wouldn’t be there this year. “I would not take the risk of getting [Covid-19] myself and then giving it to her,” he told reporters.
The entire city of Milwaukee, which normally has 180 polling places, opened just five in April’s primary.
Some states are already trying to get ahead of the problem for November—Michigan has started a “Democracy MVP” program to lure younger workers to the polls—but staffing shortfalls already have forced jurisdictions to reduce the number of polling places. Fulton County, Georgia, closed dozens of its polling places, creating long lines and long commutes for those who voted. The entire city of Milwaukee, which normally has 180 polling places, opened just five in April’s primary, leading to voting lines that looked more like an underdeveloped country than the world’s greatest democracy; the head of the election commission blamed staffing shortages and limited resources amid the pandemic.
Meanwhile, some states appear to be moving the other way, bucking concerns about the pandemic to restrict their voting procedures. In its primary last Tuesday, Alabama fought to limit curbside voting and ensure that all absentee ballots included a photocopy of the voter’s photo ID and either witness signatures or a notary’s stamp—all procedures uniquely challenging in an age of social distancing.
Right now there are so many variables it’s impossible to predict how these problems will affect the results.
These changing and shifting policies—which will likely change and shift right up until Election Day—will, like the pandemic itself, have hugely unpredictable effects on who actually votes, skewing not just the vote totals but making polling and turnout models less reliable, and making even legitimate returns appear suspiciously different than anticipated.
Right now, there are so many variables it’s impossible to predict how these problems will affect the results. Vulnerable poorer and minority populations are generally the most affected by the closure and rearrangement of polling places, but in Atlanta, the NBA Hawks are offering up their arena for a socially distanced voting location and challenging other NBA teams to do the same, which might conversely mean that urban voters have better access to polling machines than suburban voters. Meanwhile, older, conservative voters—particularly in states that have not made accommodations for the pandemic—will find themselves having to think hard about the risk of standing in line to vote in person, especially in the Southern states that seem least inclined to make allowances for the pandemic.
2. A Whirlwind of New Technology and New Processes
To head off all those polling-place problems, many states are racing to update their voting procedures to allow for expanded absentee balloting or even full vote-by-mail.
Coming into 2020, five states—Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah—were already planning to conduct their voting entirely by mail, giving them all manner of protection in a year of unknowns. Now, dozens more are scrambling to adjust their voting procedures mid-pandemic, lifting restrictions on absentee ballots and encouraging voters to vote by mail—all the while racing the clock.
“Election officials are always resource-starved—not just personnel, but in terms of IT and personal bandwidth.”- Matt Masterson
This puts huge pressure on underfunded election departments to prepare, quickly, for a deluge. “Election officials are always resource-starved—not just personnel, but in terms of IT and personal bandwidth. You’re always one day closer to the election,” says Matt Masterson, the top election security adviser at the Department of Homeland Security. “They’re being asked to adjust procedures much more quickly than they normally would. That invites risk.”
Already, hasty rollouts of expanded absentee and vote-by-mail programs have complicated primaries and caucuses from Iowa to California to Georgia. The problems run up and down the ladder: overwhelmed staff getting ballots going out late, printing and paper shortages, and space constraints. As simple as it sounds, the tight quarters of a city or town clerk’s office may not be large enough to securely hold a sudden influx of boxes and boxes of ballots—to say nothing of how social distancing requirements will affect the counting procedures. On Election Night itself, officials are likely this year to find that they don’t even have the right equipment to tally votes—places that rely on in-person voting across multiple smaller locations typically use slower scanners than vote-by-mail states, whose centralized counting requires high-speed equipment. “Now, you need to move to high-speed scanners, or you need to hire an army of people to feed those ballots into those scanners. And that's going to take a very long time,” says voting tech expert Ben Adida.
When it comes to tallying in-person votes, the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time in terms of evolving voter technology. After the “hanging chads” debacle in Florida in 2000, many states moved to paperless systems, imagining that the future was a touchscreen system that recorded votes inside the machine. Then, the cybersecurity and hacking fears raised by Russia’s attack on the 2016 election turned that assumption upside down—and states and election authorities have spent the past four years ripping up their voting playbooks and rushing to replace machines with paper ballots or what the industry calls “ballot marking devices,” computers that effectively print out a very fancy voting receipt.
Of course, with competent election officials, good government, and planning, none of this has to result in disaster.
According to a POLITICO survey, at least 14 states have rushed to upgrade systems in the wake of the 2016 election—meaning that millions of voters and poll workers will face new machines come Election Day. An example of what can go wrong unfolded last fall in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, when workers incorrectly programmed new machines; voters accused the machines of mis-registering their votes, the machines failed to count votes for one of the candidates entirely, and officials found that voters took three times longer on the new equipment than they did just marking paper ballots. The machines, known as ExpressVote XL, roll out more widely this year in other states, boosting the potential for long lines and holdups. Georgia’s problems this spring? You guessed it! Partly the result of similar machines causing the same trouble.
One specific new threat in 2020: ransomware. The rapid global switch to remote work, driven by the pandemic, has also unleashed an explosion of malicious software and email attachments that lock up victims’ computers unless a ransom is paid. Local and state governments, with their old software and underfunded IT departments, have already proven vulnerable to such schemes—and those are the governments that run elections. Officials like DHS’ Masterson have been warning election administrators about schemes that will either directly or indirectly target their systems—freezing up voter databases, vote counts, or otherwise gumming up the election.
Of course, with competent election officials, good government and planning, none of this has to result in disaster: Kentucky actually pulled off a model primary last month, with a million Kentuckians participating in the highest turnout in a dozen years and 75 percent of votes cast absentee. “What really worked here that we haven’t seen in some other states is we had a bipartisan agreement reached well in advance of the election,” the state’s Republican secretary of state told POLITICO’s Zach Montellaro. “People trust the rules when both sides agree to them.”
3. A Drought of Funding, Causing a Flood of Delays
While headlines trumpet that this will be the most expensive campaign of all time—both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are raising record amounts of money—it's important to remember those headlines and the incoming money are really talking only about political advertising. Those who are actually administering the election and ensuring that all votes get counted, on the other hand, are facing worrisome funding shortfalls even as they cope with increased costs, as well technology and staffing needs amid a pandemic. And it’s not like America’s chronically underfunded election system was exactly swimming in money before Covid-19.
So far, the Band-Aids provided for this year’s unprecedented complexity are woefully inadequate. Congress included only about $400 million in aid for election administrators in its stimulus bill this spring, a fraction of the $3.6 billion Democrats had tried to send to state and local officials.
Vote-by-mail systems are labor intensive and time sensitive—election officials need to field requests weeks in advance and be prepared to count votes for days afterward—all of which raises new costs. Washington state’s Kim Wyman told me half of her state’s 4 million mailed ballots come in the week of the election, meaning that precincts have to staff their polling places for days, not just a single morning-to-night Election Day.
Key links in the election chain face their own funding squeezes. The U.S. Postal Service, which is suddenly assuming an outsize role in elections as states shift to mail-in ballots, is forecasting that the pandemic-related collapse in mail volume might cause it to run out of money this fall. (So far, the Trump administration has been resisting a federal bailout, leading some to see an attempt to undermine the system ahead of the election.) Yet even if it’s functioning come fall, the Postal Service will strain under the heavy burden of millions more mail-in ballots: The Postal Service hasn’t hit its own on-time delivery goals in five years, meaning that ballots may trickle in for days after an election. And now the pandemic is making successful deliveries more challenging. Mail across the system has slowed as more than 60 postal workers have been killed by the virus and thousands sickened or sent home to quarantine.
Everyone who loved the “hanging chads” debate of 2000 should steel themselves for the “what does that fuzzy postmark say?” debate of 2020.
Last week saw the nation’s new postmaster general, a major Trump donor, outline plans to slow down mail delivery even more and stop the late trips that help guarantee speedy delivery. “One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that—temporarily—we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks,″ one document obtained by the AP said.
Those problems almost guarantee that everyone who loved the “hanging chads” debate of 2000 should steel themselves for the “what does that fuzzy postmark say?” debate of 2020. For the time being, different standards from state to state and slowed delivery times—both for absentee ballots going out and coming back—guarantee that tens of thousands of voted ballots nationwide will be thrown in the trash because they arrived too late to be counted. Pennsylvania, which now requires mailed ballots to be received by Election Day, rejected nearly 5 percent of absentee ballots in 2018, the vast majority because they arrived too late. Florida, home to George W. Bush’s 537-vote victory, tossed out 18,500 ballots that arrived too late to be counted in its primary this year.
To fix this, some voting rights groups are pushing states to adopt what they say are the four pillars of free and fair mail-in voting procedures: Postage must be free or prepaid by the government; ballots postmarked on or before Election Day must count; laws that require the matching of signatures on absentee ballots to voter registration forms must be reformed to reduce subjectivity; and community organizations should be allowed to help collect and deliver sealed ballots outside the Postal Service.
Be prepared too for some truly forehead-slapping moments as different electoral goals collide in unexpected ways: New York is arguing over the mess it created when it made postage free for its primary this summer—but the post office doesn’t typically postmark postage-paid “Business Reply Mail-style” envelopes, so now they don’t know when thousands of ballots were actually mailed. All told, due to a variety of such concerns, some New York precincts might end up throwing away one in every five mail-in ballots.
It's not clear if the political will exists to fix this problem, much as we can see it coming; House Democrats tried to institute a national standard for postmarks as part of their pandemic stimulus package, but the effort failed. And even the states with the best of intentions to execute a fair and free election will have to find lots of new costs to worry about.
4. A Tidal Wave of Dislocated Voters
Much recent political science research has shown that voting is a habit, and the pandemic is set to upset election routines in almost every precinct in the country.
The closure of workplaces and the move to virtual learning mean that millions of Americans come November won’t be living where they thought they would be, and many are far from where they are registered to vote. Sensitivities about the virus will mean that potentially tens of thousands of traditional polling places will be moved and relocated.
Many nursing homes and assisted living locations that typically house polling places are skipping that hosting responsibility this year, which will make it harder for both those residents and their neighbors to vote as usual. In Florida, Tampa-area Pinellas County alone moved eight polling places out of assisted living facilities.
On a broader scale, the pandemic has also caused a massive, national geographic disruption.
That trend is unfolding nationally. Nursing homes are hardly the only ones saying, “Thanks but no thanks,” to hosting polling places; government offices, schools and churches are all saying vote elsewhere. Schools alone are where 1 in 3 Americans normally votes—and the state of the nation’s schools come November is anything but clear. Minneapolis has already announced that 50 of its 125 polling places will be moved for November.
On a broader scale, the pandemic has also caused a massive, national geographic disruption. With many colleges and universities either closed or focused on virtual learning, the students who normally flood swing state college towns like Madison, Ann Arbor or State College might not end up voting at all, or will vote elsewhere. Postsecondary students, always among the hardest populations to register and turn out, often have a choice between voting in their hometown or in the town of their college, and this fall’s election will find many or most of the nation’s nearly 20 million students out of place—their votes either nonexistent, or potentially focused elsewhere.
Will college students vote by mail?
Given the huge populations of students in what are widely seen as the three key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, this factor alone could seriously disrupt voter registration drives, polling models and final turnout. The student population of the Penn State system alone—100,000—is more than double Donald Trump’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania, while Wisconsin normally has 200,000 college students statewide and Michigan a whopping 500,000. So will college students vote by mail? Maybe—but remember, this is a generation that literally finds itself befuddled by the post office and has previously not voted absentee because it doesn’t know where to buy stamps.
The pandemic already appears to be affecting the makeup of the electorate—the share of 18-29 year-olds registered to vote is down in 49 out of 50 states, as are registrations for people of color—and the pandemic dislocations will also complicate campaigns’ get-out-the-vote efforts, both in-person or from afar.
5. A Storm of Foreign Attacks
We now know that Russia’s attack on the 2016 election was broader and more multifaceted than we understood at the time—hacking into campaigns, strategically leaking stolen emails and stoking division through sham accounts on Americans’ Facebook and Twitter feeds. And we know that a big reason the nation’s intelligence and national security leaders stumbled in response is that it simply defied imagination, catching them off-guard.
There’s little reason to believe that Russia won’t try at least some manner of mischief again this fall. For one thing, such attacks are stunningly cost-effective. Even if it didn’t directly throw the election, the Kremlin managed to influence the campaign agenda, stoke partisan division at home and make America look like a chump abroad—a victory Vladimir Putin got to enjoy for less than the cost of a single fighter jet. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has itself exacted little geopolitical price from Russia.
On this front, however, there’s also some good news. The country is on guard this time and has made some important changes, like officially designating election systems as critical infrastructure. Trump confirmed for the first time earlier this month that U.S. Cyber Command took covert action in 2018 to dissuade Russian internet trolls from interfering with the midterm elections. As of last Friday, DHS’ top cyber official, Christopher Krebs, told an audience at Brookings that Russia so far seems to be sitting this one out. “Compared to where things were in 2016, we’re not seeing that level of coordinated, determined cyberactivity from adversaries,” he said last Friday at a Brookings Institution event. “We absolutely have better visibility across the networks, and we’re just not seeing that same level of activity that we saw in 2016.”
As we learned in 2016, foreign adversaries only need to suggest that they’ve successfully altered votes in order to cast doubt on the entire process.
Yet there’s plenty of time still to go before the election, and this time Russia might not be the only foreign adversary inclined to meddle. Google has reported that it spotted Chinese and Iranian hackers attempting to target the Biden campaign. While such phishing attacks aimed at cracking users’ email passwords might very well be just routine intelligence gathering—many people don’t remember that China actually targeted both the Obama and McCain campaigns in 2008—there’s plenty of reason to worry. China has vastly expanded its foreign information operations over the past year, driven both on the unrest in Hong Kong and the Covid-19 pandemic.
None of this is to say that voting will be literally hacked, nor that any adversary, whether it’s the Kremlin or Trump’s proverbial “guy in his home in New Jersey,” is capable of literally altering the outcome. Hacking a U.S. election at scale would be enormously difficult, in part because of the variety of voting machines and procedures in the country. But if they try, security experts have complained that the Trump administration has still deprioritized protection of election infrastructure as well as the cyber defenses meant to discourage an attack in the first place—in part, apparently, because of his ongoing concern that even acknowledging Russia’s attack undermines the legitimacy of his own victory.
As we learned in 2016, foreign adversaries need only to suggest they’ve successfully altered votes in order to cast doubt on the entire process. It’s worth remembering that the Kremlin’s goal in 2016 was as much about undermining Americans’ faith in their own politics as it was about specifically helping Trump. On that front, they scored an easy win—and Russia, China or Iran could succeed again. As Adida, the voting tech expert, says: “What's the low-hanging fruit attack in our democracy today? It’s fearmongering. It’s information warfare. It’s reducing trust in the outcome of the election. Forget actually corrupting the election—it’s making people believe that the election didn’t go well.”
6. A Blizzard of Misinformation and Disinformation
Even if we don’t see the same kind of sustained assault from Russia, we face a more unsettling problem: The novel foreign tactics of 2016 have now been warmly embraced here at home. Voters this fall will have to navigate a news and information environment so polluted that it should be an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.
Consider the politicized nature of pandemic information in which some Americans see masks as a political plot to slow the economy, or deprive their brains of oxygen; consider the rise of QAnon’s conspiracy-theories-as-a-cult phenomenon—a movement now so powerful in the GOP that 11 adherents of the bizarre worldview are now Republican nominees for Congress. Amid this comes the rise of hyperpartisan sites masquerading as legitimate news outlets, which will make it far harder for voters to get, and agree on, basic facts. Candidates are furthering conspiracy-mongering for their own gain and adopting the worst tactics of Russia’s Internet Research Agency themselves, embracing what the tech platforms have come to call “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” the armies of bots and astroturf accounts that together amplify messages and attacks.
For anyone not jittery enough, last week’s bizarre Twitter hack of prominent accounts underscored how vulnerable our national political and global geopolitical conversation is to bad actors. Imagine, for a moment, if that hack had been an Election Day disinformation scheme, rather than a Bitcoin fraud—and it was still running by the time the polls closed.
7. Declining Voter Protections, Increasing Lawsuits and No Watchdog
America’s two political parties are now in open warfare over the basic question of who gets to vote, and how their rights are supposed to be protected.
Beyond the Supreme Court’s 2013 rollback of a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the careful legislation that had protected the right to vote since the civil rights movement, this fall also marks the first presidential election since 1980 for which the Republican National Committee will not be bound by a federal consent decree that prohibits its controversial “ballot security” efforts to challenge voters’ credentials.
The judicial order, which courts allowed to expire in 2017, was put into place in 1981 and updated in 1987 and 1990 after fresh efforts by the RNC to disenfranchise minority voters by challenging their registration credentials. (It was little noticed in 2016, but the consent decree was part of what shut down a more recent voter intimidation project backed by Roger Stone on Trump’s behalf.) The RNC now says it hopes to recruit 50,000 poll watchers for the fall election to fight “fraud.” In a May interview with POLITICO, the RNC’s chief of staff said the party is prepared to sue Democrats “into oblivion and spend whatever is necessary” to defend the integrity of the election—moves that, more often than not, mean raising barriers to voting.
“We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think—I think it puts the election at risk.”- Donald Trump
Republicans have taken to the courts already in more than a dozen states, including the four big battlegrounds of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, challenging attempts to expand mail-in voting, and last month, in an interview with POLITICO, Trump volunteered that the thing he’s most worried about is those lawsuits not sufficiently suppressing the vote. “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” Trump said. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think—I think it puts the election at risk.”
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ top election lawyer, Marc Elias, told New York’s Gabriel Debenedetti that his team has already filed more election-protection lawsuits to try to defend or expand voting rights in 2020 than it did in 2015 through 2018 combined.
Amid all of this, the nation’s typical watchdog for electoral dirty tricks is supposed to be the Federal Election Commission, which polices campaign finance violations. As of the start of this month, however, it currently lacks a quorum and is unable to function. The body has been understaffed and hobbled by vacancies during the Trump administration—it has been without a quorum for most of the past year, and only briefly regained one in May before another commissioner resigned. Ethics groups have been already turning to the courts to ask them to enforce campaign finance rules in the absence of the official regulator. Even if the Senate moves expeditiously to confirm Trump’s latest nominee, don’t count on the FEC being an aggressive watchdog: Trump’s latest pick, Allen Dickerson, comes from a think tank called the Institute for Free Speech, which backed the Citizens United case.
Meanwhile, the Election Assistance Commission, the body charged with developing voting system guidelines and acting as the country’s clearinghouse on election administration, is still getting itself up to speed: It had been without a full complement of its four commissioners for a decade until February last year, when two new members were finally confirmed.
The Supreme Court’s certainly not going to step in to save voting rights; it sided against easing voting restrictions in four rulings in a row this term. At this point, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent, the court is outright “condoning disenfranchisement.”
8. An Unpredictable Volcano in the Oval Office
It seems like ancient history, but presidents for most of American history have genuinely let U.S. elections run their course, declining to use their power to tilt the scales in their own favor. Sure, incumbents enjoy the advantage of campaigning from Air Force One, and may try to goose the economy to curry votes, but they’ve mostly abided by America’s strong democratic norms and traditions of not weaponizing the office’s powers against your opponent.
Trump is different. At its heart, the Ukraine scandal last fall was about the president using America’s international leverage for his personal campaign, pressing another leader for dirt—or, more accurately, to create the appearance of dirt—on his most likely rival, Joe Biden. More recently, Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, has been implying that his investigation of the Mueller investigation will upend things in a way that would benefit his boss.
In recent months, the president has been tweeting wildly to undermine the very legitimacy of the vote-by-mail procedures being instituted across the country. The president’s campaign against mail-in ballots has been fierce, regular and vociferous; in one tweet, he even suggested, without evidence, that foreign countries would print “millions” of mail-in ballots, a conceit that would be laughable except that he’s the president, with millions of loyal supporters, and it profoundly undermines Americans’ confidence in their own electoral process.
The truth, of course, is that rampant voter fraud just doesn’t exist in the United States—and mail-in voting has a particularly infinitesimal percentage of fraud. Washington state secretary of state Wyman says that in 2018 they found 142 fraudulent voting attempts out of 3.2 million ballots—that is .004 percent fraud.
Democrats and Republicans alike are openly wondering now: What happens if Donald Trump refuses to concede?
Trump’s rhetoric has even GOP officials worried, since his tweets might discourage his own supporters from voting by mail—skewing races while simultaneously making MAGA-ites less likely to trust a loss. Both Pennsylvania, where 70 percent of the absentee ballot requests came from Democrats, and Indiana, where 55 percent of its mail-in ballot requests came from Democrats, give GOP leaders pause.
Despite the concerns, Trump’s campaign to undermine confidence in the election shows no sign of slowing: Earlier this month, he tweeted, “Mail-In Ballot fraud found in many elections. People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is. Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election....”
Such comments are worrisome not just because of their short-term impact on the voting procedures, but because they appear to lay the groundwork for a challenge to the results themselves, particularly if a close loss or general confusion around the election gives him even a remotely plausible—however far-fetched—excuse to fight. In the same interview with POLITICO last month in which he cast doubt on the mail-in vote, he didn’t answer whether he’d accept the outcome of the election. “Hillary kept talking about she’s going to accept, and they never accepted it. You know. She lost, too. She lost good,” he said, ignoring that Clinton conceded decisively the day after the 2016 election.
Democrats and Republicans alike are openly wondering now: What happens if Trump refuses to concede?
Taken together, experts are anticipating an election in which it’s harder to vote, harder to count the votes, less clear who’s won, and more unpredictable than any election Americans have lived through. And that’s if everything goes smoothly.
It’s a certainty that voters will complain about lost ballots and whether their votes were ever counted; they’ll hear stories about (or endure) long lines, unusable machines and literal health risks on Election Day. And even on the smoothest national election days, there are power outages, thunderstorms, fires and random mishaps that could be seized upon in bad faith or by the more conspiratorial to condemn the overall result as unfair or rigged.
It’s also highly probable that the final results could take a long time to tally—in some states a week or more, both for local races and the presidential, particularly in states that require absentee ballots to be postmarked by only Election Day. Officials in those states will see ballots trickle in right through the weekend after the election.
As the days pass, and absentee and mail-in votes are counted, it’s likely Americans will watch results change, as candidates who appear poised for victory on election night see their victories overturned. These swings can be dramatic, as in June’s special election in New York’s 27th Congressional District: There, in a district that Trump won by 25 percent points, the Republican candidate led 70-28 on the night of the election, but won just 53-45 once all the absentee ballots were counted. The reverse happened in Oklahoma in June on a ballot measure to expand Medicaid eligibility: Early and absentee ballots made it look like it was headed to an overwhelming victory—75 percent supported the measure—but in-person votes steadily narrowed that on Election Day until it squeaked through with just 50.48 percent of the vote.
Stranger things have indeed happened, as it turns out.
“People need to understand that’s not actually a problem. That’s how the system is supposed to work,” explains Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Voting Rights Project. “One thing that I am concerned about is that if those election results do trickle in—particularly in those states that were pivotal in the presidential election in 2016, like Michigan and Pennsylvania—you may get some unfounded statements from some quarters that the pace at which the results are being tabulated suggests some kind of problem.”
The protests over all of that—the feelings of disenfranchisement, the surprise results, the late swings, the accusations of voter intimidation and fraud, to say nothing of the murk of accusations and countercharges on social media in the run-up to November—could turn especially combustible and disruptive given the charged political environment that’s already taken root on America’s streets. There are reports that the president’s attacks on the process are already stirring trouble, as right-wing militias ready themselves for violence after November, confident that any Biden victory must be fraudulent. As one senior Democratic campaign official told me: “The question isn’t what is the spark, it’s what is the fire going to burn?”
Any one of these problems above could throw the national election into chaos if a secretary of state—in good faith or bad—takes this into account and refuses to certify his or her state’s vote tally and push us into uncharted constitutional territory. Sure, we technically have procedures in place to deal with such problems—hello, House of Representatives!—but the nation has never really been confronted by a candidate who refused, after the counting stopped, to concede the election. And if there’s one thing the Trump administration has taught us, it’s that even long-standing norms and procedures crumple up quickly when a leader simply refuses to acknowledge them.
If any of that seems like it just can’t happen in our system—remember that Donald Trump was a no-chance novelty candidate when he rode down the golden escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015. Stranger things have indeed happened, as it turns out.