How to Avoid an Election Crisis in November

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended usual voting procedures. Professor Richard L. Hasen explains the unprecedented challenges the United States faces this November, and offers recommendations for how election officials, political leaders, civil society, and the media can help protect the integrity of elections during a crisis.

Professor Hasen
Professor Hasen speaks at UCI Law. Image credit: UCI Law

Voters in the United States are preparing to cast their ballots amid a deadly pandemic that has upended normal voting procedures, exacerbated political polarization, and given rise to unsubstantiated claims that vote by mail will give way to large-scale electoral fraud. Freedom House spoke with Richard L. Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy, about the challenges the United States will confront during the 2020 elections.

Hasen is also the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy. The committee released a report in April titled “Fair Elections during a Crisis” that provides detailed recommendations for improving the November 2020 general elections in the United States. We asked Hasen to elaborate on some of the issues raised in the report.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: There is a lot of heated rhetoric about the upcoming general elections. Are these elections different from past US elections?

This election is meaningfully different. It is being held during a pandemic, which is upending the usual means of voting. We will see both a surge of absentee ballots, as well as increased costs of voting in person. In the midst of all this, President Trump is making wholly unsubstantiated charges that the election will be “rigged” or “stolen” through increased vote by mail. It raises concerns about people accepting the legitimacy of the election, especially if it is close.

Q: Your working group’s report, “Fair Elections During a Crisis,” references the possibility of a disputed election numerous times. Can you explain what you mean by “disputed” in this context?

Not all election disputes are crises. In the close 2000 election, there was a legal procedure to determine who won the state of Florida and therefore the US presidency. After the United States Supreme Court resolved legal disputes, the loser, Al Gore, accepted the results and that was the end of the election dispute. I am more concerned with protracted, nonlegal disputes over the election, where there is a real question about who the winner is or whether the election was done fairly.

Q: How concerned are you about electoral disputes in the US election? What kind of disputes do you think are the most likely?

The biggest factor here is the vote margin. If the vote is not close in the electoral college, then I think we will be able to avoid the worst stresses on our democracy and election system. If it is close, I worry about a situation where both sides declare victory. This could happen, for example, if Trump is ahead in the voting on election night in a key swing state like Pennsylvania, only to see his lead disappear as additional absentee ballots are counted in the days after the election. Trump could argue that those later ballots are somehow fraudulent, despite lack of evidence that this would be the case.

Q: How should the media be approaching the election, and preparing their readers and viewers? What specific steps can they take to prepare their newsrooms? What would you like to see in terms of voter education about ways in which the election may be different this year?

The media needs to hammer home the message that if the vote is close the results will be “too early to call” on election night and that it may be a week or more before we know the winner. It also should fact-check claims of voter fraud or other voting problems, including those made by the president, to separate reality from unsupported claims. And it is important for election officials to be transparent about their processes, including the number of ballots that remain to be counted and likely timing.

Q: Are there initiatives you think US civil society groups or others should undertake?

It would be good to see bipartisan leaders come together to enunciate best practices for the election and to call out those who would seek to delegitimize the process without evidence. It is important to push for changes in voting systems to ensure that all eligible voters will be able to safely and effectively cast a ballot that will be accurately counted in November.

Q: Some have pushed to use more digital technology in US elections, such as electronic voter registration, electronic voting, internet voting, and even apps, as were made infamous by the Iowa caucus this year. Will technical innovations bring about more inclusive and credible elections, or is there cause for concern about the adoption of these tools?

Online voter registration makes a lot of sense, and does not create great risks. But our report warned against any online return of ballots. Such systems are not secure, should not be rolled out for the first time in a high-stakes election, and risk legitimacy problems because there is no physical paper to examine to verify the vote.

Q: We’ve seen a number of problematic primaries over the last few months, at least in part because of pandemic-induced complications. How prepared is the US to hold a national election during a pandemic? 

Some places are better equipped than others. We have seen problems in states with Democratic and Republican governments, and in large states and small ones. We need to make sure that all states are ready for the surge of absentee ballots coming in November, and the desire (and in some cases need) for some voters to vote safely in person.

Q: There has been a lot of discussion about disenfranchisement during the primaries, especially of Black and Latinx voters. Do you have concerns about disenfranchisement in November?

I am concerned about disenfranchisement, not only from intentional acts of discrimination but also from incompetence and lack of resources. In Wisconsin, for example, 175 of 180 polling places were closed in Milwaukee, leading to a decline in turnout by African American voters. We must do much better in November.

Q: We’re only four months away from election day, and many challenges remain. What are the most urgent steps to take, either at a local, state, or national level?

The “Fair Elections During a Crisis” report goes into more detail with its recommendations. Administrators need to plan for numerous contingencies, and have redundancies such as paper backup ballots if electronic voting machines fail or there are other problems.

Q: Are there any election-related issues people are not talking about or paying attention to, but should be?

I am still quite worried about foreign interference in our elections. It could take the form this time of disinformation about when, where, and how to vote during the pandemic. Social media companies should be especially prepared to combat these efforts.

Q: Do you have any final takeaways you’d like to share?

There are still months to go before the election, and more preparations that could be made to try to minimize the risks of meltdown. We all need to do our share to ensure we have a fair and safe election in November, one whose results are accepted by most Americans.