Remember how acrimonious the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was? Brace yourselves, the 2020 election season will be worse. Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, this fall’s election would have been contentious. Voter ID laws and challenges to them, accusations of voter suppression and of voter fraud, the role of money in campaigns, negative ads intended to discourage voters, foreign interference via social media, and under-resourced polling stations leading to long lines for voters in predominantly Black and Brown communities: these problems have been with us in recent elections.
And now there are three more means by which the coronavirus pandemic will further stress our election system this year: complications with mail in ballots, staffing problems at physical polling stations, and increased social media consumption alongside increased manipulation of politically related social media.
The COVID-19 pandemic adds additional complications to the upcoming election: a strong motivation for voters to avoid physically going to the polls, and a lack of nationally uniform procedures for casting a ballot by mail.
For good reason, people will be hesitant to physically show up at the polls on November 3, 2020. An alternative is to vote by mail, but because states are each responsible for administering their own elections, we have 50 different sets of procedures surrounding our elections. This means 50 different processes for registering to vote, 50 different deadlines for voter registration, 50 different deadlines for requesting mail-in ballots, and 50 different deadlines for when ballots must be received. Because of the COVID-19 risk, many state’s election and ID offices are closed to the public right now, or open only by appointment, so getting or updating an ID may involve delays. Some states, like Missouri, require absentee ballots to be notarized, and others require voters to mail in a photocopy of their ID along with their mail-in ballots. Seventeen states require an officially declared reason (a disability, an extended absence, etc.) for voting by mail, with different levels of documentation required for proving an inability to vote at the polls.
COVID-19 combined with our decentralized electoral system makes it difficult for even experienced voters to know how they will vote this year, and may intimidate potential new voters. These circumstances also make things difficult for the many organizations who are working on Get Out The Vote initiatives, and unfortunately, makes it easier for those who intend to sabotage our elections with misinformation to do just that.
Another concern related to an increase in mail-in voting is the inability of election observers to fully observe the entire election process. “Normally” during elections, volunteers position themselves at the polls and observe the process. The presence of election observers builds confidence in elections, and helps mute suspicion of election fraud. How will election observers operate this year? It is not practical for election observers to station themselves in county election offices throughout all of October and early November (when ballots will be coming in), so election observers can not watch to make sure that all of the ballots are received and stored safely until they are counted. Accusations of disappearing ballots could be especially problematic in small communities where county election officers recognize names and party affiliation of some of their voting neighbors, and in under-resourced communities where unsafe storage spaces and/or inconsistent storage methods could compromise ballots for entire communities.
Physical Polling Stations
In addition to the complications surrounding mail in ballots, the COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to lead to problems at physical polling stations on November 3.
“Normally” during elections, local polling stations are staffed primarily by elderly poll workers, doing a very part time job for low wages. Many of these poll workers have years of experience, but very little training. Who is going to fill those positions this year? Probably not the experienced elderly poll workers in the highest risk group for COVID-19. How will poll workers be recruited and trained? States and localities that don’t address these concerns early will have a shortage of trained poll workers on November 3, and some voters will see long lines or even closed polling stations as a result.
Increased consumption of increasingly manipulated social media
As people spend more time at home and online in response to the pandemic, social media consumption has dramatically increased. This is happening against a backdrop of interference and manipulation of U.S. social media. There are very well documented examples of Russian government interference in the 2016 Presidential election. I use this report to the Senate Intelligence Committee in some of my classes at Luther because it is full of compelling and probably familiar images. The first image in this report (on page 12) is “Like for Jesus Team/Ignore for Satan Team” superimposed over altered photos of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (yes, those are horns.), and the report gets even more interesting from there. This report makes it painfully clear that operatives funded by the Russian government (and likely others) attempted to weaken the United States by exploiting our political divides (race, class, religion, gender, etc.) to sow division, fuel animosity, and undermine our trust in government and in each other. These attacks on our political system have only grown more sophisticated since the last presidential election cycle. It appears that much of the current social media outrage about mask requirements and mandatory business closures has been manufactured. In July, 2020 researchers found that half of the Twitter accounts advocating “re-open America” and questioning mask requirements are bots. In addition, Twitter accounts of prominent public figures have been hacked. If hackers can fake tweets requesting financial contributions, they could also fake tweets about anything else. How long would it take for fake tweets to be recognized? Would you believe a candidate if they said their scandalous tweet was a fake?
Moment of racial reckoning
In addition to all of this, COVID-19 has exposed a racial divide in our country, drawing attention to and exacerbating racial inequalities in health, healthcare access, housing, education, employment, wages, and treatment at the hands of law enforcement officials. This has prompted a moment of reckoning around the racialized and racist history of the United States. This is a good, healthy opportunity for us to learn and grow, but it has also inflamed passions in ways that many people may find unsettling. Many more people report feeling politically engaged and motivated to vote. Will they? Will they be able to vote? Will first-time voters figure out how to register to vote and cast absentee ballots? Will all of the votes be counted? COVID-19 may have fueled this racial reckoning, but it may also make it harder for this reckoning to translate to votes and political accountability.
In light of all of this, there are a few things we can do to prepare ourselves.
First, register to vote now, or confirm your eligibility if you are already registered. Find out if an official picture ID is required, and if necessary, figure out how to get one, and/or make sure your driver’s license is not expired. Many state offices are closed to the public right now, or open only by appointment, so this is not something you will be able to take care of at the last minute, and voter registration deadlines for the fall election are fast approaching in many states.
Then, figure out what your state requires for you to request a ballot by mail. Here is one place for you to start, wherever you live.
At this point, Iowa’s Secretary of State plans to mail absentee ballot request forms to all registered Iowa voters, but procedures will be different in other states.
Finally, keep in mind that the social media you experience is being intentionally manipulated. People far more technologically sophisticated than me are trying to undermine your trust in government, and your trust in other Americans. To counter the distorting effects of social media manipulation, I encourage you to seek out political information intentionally, rather than just consuming what comes to you via social media. And it is always a good idea to seek out a range of perspectives on political ideas and political candidates. Students in my January class on the Iowa Caucuses found this news resource (AllSides) to be informative, and often amusing.
No, the President cannot unilaterally decide to delay the elections, but that it would be a good idea casts even more doubt on our electoral process. It is far easier to undermine a democracy than to build, repair, and rebuild it. Elections are hard work, but unless you are willing to consider the alternatives, they are quite necessary. There are real problems with our election system and these need to be addressed, but that is not going to happen in the next three months. For now, we need to figure out how to jump through the hoops for voting in this election, and help the first-time voters in your life to navigate the system. Then we can work on improving the system for the next election. This COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, and ultimately we may be able to use this experience to strengthen our electoral system.