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It took nearly six weeks after New York’s June 23 primary to get final results from two closely followed U.S. House races. In California, the Associated Press calculated that election officials rejected more than 100,000 mail-in ballots, about 1.5 percent of the state’s total mail-in ballots from the March 6 presidential primaries, as a result of mistakes such as missing signatures. In June, many Georgia voters waited for hours to cast their in-person ballots for primary races, due to a reduced number of polling locations amid the pandemic and limited training for poll workers on new voting machines.
The chaos of pandemic-era primary elections has become a harbinger for what the country could face in November. But it also offers an important roadmap of missteps to avoid as election officials prepare to handle a pandemic election while also mitigating ongoing concerns about foreign election interference and security overall.
President Donald Trump has decried mail-in voting as susceptible to rampant fraud, despite no evidence to support his assertion. The U.S. Postal Service has been hobbled by low funding and staffing as well as sweeping organizational changes, resulting in mail delays that are preventing some ballots from arriving in time to be counted. New reports from security experts point to a number of ways other countries are contributing to the spread of misinformation in an effort to influence the race.
And the patchwork of vote-by-mail rules and requirements from state to state present obstacles for many voters, particularly those from under-resourced communities.
As voting rights organizations push for changes, filing dozens of lawsuits since March aimed at removing restrictions on who is eligible to vote by mail, election officials are making changes to avoid a repeat of the primary season and warning that the presidential race may not be called on election night, but possibly days or even weeks later.
“November is right around the corner, said Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “One silver lining of the experience of the primaries is we hope that some of these states were, in effect, scared straight.”
Over the last five months, the surge in voting by mail has been plagued by missing ballots, counting delays and accusations of voter suppression. In Fulton County, Georgia, mail ballots typically make up no more than 5 percent of all the ballots cast, said Richard Barron, director of registration and elections with the county. For the June primary, however, as the state began to lift stay-at-home restrictions and COVID-19 cases continued to rise, mail ballots made up 38 percent of all votes in Fulton.
Part of the problem with the increased volume of mailed ballots is that, with the exception of those over 65 years old or with disabilities, Georgia voters must re-apply to vote absentee for every election, Barron said. This means most voters who submitted applications for June’s primaries must apply again for the November general election. “It’s not logical,” Barron said. “It would be easier if everyone that applied could be rolled over instead of having to go through and reenter applications every election.”
In June, the increased workload for staff, printing failures and computer server overload led to a backlog of 25,000 applications to vote by mail just two weeks before Georgia’s primary. Voters reported opting to vote in person when their mail ballots didn’t arrive on time. Ahead of November, Barron said Fulton County has secured new printers to help process mail ballot applications.
As of early September, six states will require voters to have a valid excuse beyond concern of contracting COVID-19 for not voting in person in November, according to a tally by the Brennan Center for Justice. Seventeen states have not made vote-by-mail ballot request forms available online statewide, though some counties within those states have the option. Nine states require a mail ballot be signed in front of witnesses or a notary. And nine states and Washington, D.C., currently plan to automatically mail all eligible voters ballots that can be returned without strict ID or witness requirements.
California, one of the states sending ballots to all registered voters for November, has years of experience with no-excuse mail voting — nearly 58 percent of votes cast in the 2016 election were by mail, while 65 percent of ballots in the 2018 midterms were cast by mail. Yet the state still faced challenges in its March primary, held before pandemic-related stay-at-home orders started to go into effect across the country, when more than 100,000 ballots were rejected, the majority for missing the return deadline. The state has since changed the requirement, allowing all ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 to be counted up to 7 days after the election.
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In New York City alone, officials rejected 84,000 ballots in the June primary, which had been delayed due to the pandemic — 21 percent of the mail ballots cast. “It’s a large number,” said Peter Kosinski, a commissioner with the New York State Board of Elections. “Part of it, I think, is that a lot of the voters that were casting absentees were first-time absentee voters” — the state opened up absentee voting in the primary to anyone concerned about COVID-19 — “and a lot of them maybe weren’t familiar with the process, how you had to sign the envelopes and things like that … so it ended up invalidating their ballots,” he said.
But New York’s challenge with mail voting is not unique to the pandemic. A report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that nearly 14 percent of mail-in ballots in New York were rejected in the 2018 general election. To help address some of these concerns, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed several bills in August aimed at making the process easier and more accessible. One law now requires the Board of Elections to notify voters of any minor ballot errors within a day of detecting them and then allow voters to correct the mistakes. Another extends vote-by-mail to all New Yorkers, without having to give an excuse, until January 2022.
Other states, including November battlegrounds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida, also reported thousands of mail ballot rejections for signature-related errors and other mistakes during this year’s primaries. Mail-ballot restrictions and rejections are the subject of ongoing lawsuits around the country.
Caren Short, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said states should make sure to “plan ahead in time to ensure that there’s enough time and a process for people to correct errors that are made on absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots, but also to properly inform and educate the public about how to properly complete applications and their ballot.”
Short also said that states should “really examine the process and the requirements” for mail voting to determine what is really necessary and look for opportunities to make the process more accessible. She added that Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana “all come up short, and are currently failing to remove burdensome and unnecessary hurdles” that don’t “serve any appreciable purpose related to election integrity.
Trump has launched an attack on the vote by mail process, repeatedly warning that there is “tremendous potential for voter fraud,” though members of his administration say there’s “no real evidence” of that threat. In an interview with Fox Business in August, Trump cited mail-in ballots as the reason he opposed the $3.6 billion funding House Democrats proposed to help state and local governments with elections. The president also criticized the push for mail-in ballots during the Republican National Convention. “They’re sending [ballots] out to people that didn’t ask for them. They didn’t ask; they just get them,” Trump said, seeming to refer to states that are automatically mailing ballots to all voters. “And it’s not fair, and it’s not right, and it’s not going to be possible to tabulate in my opinion. It’s just my opinion. We have to be very, very careful.”
An August PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found a stark political divide on the issue with about 62 percent of Democrats, 41 percent of Independents and 32 percent of Republicans saying they would vote by mail if given the option.
Voting fraud does occur, infrequently, but analyses indicate few instances of fraud due to vote-by-mail. And a Stanford University study of three of the five states with all-mail elections determined that they do not heavily favor one party. In Utah, an all-mail state that overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2016, Lieutenant Gov. Spencer Cox told the PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham that rampant voter fraud has not been a problem for the state. “Every type of election, it doesn’t matter, any way you do it, there is the opportunity for fraud there,” Cox said. “We take painstaking procedures and efforts to make sure that there is no fraud.”
Similarly, Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission who was appointed by Trump last year, told PBS NewsHour’s Daniel Bush that election officials throughout the country “have trust in this system.”
“They know it works. They’ve been doing it for years,” Hovland said. He added that officials have been preparing for a pandemic election since late March, and he’s “heartened to see that work firsthand and hear from election officials about all they’re doing to make November as smooth as possible.”
“It gives me great confidence in the system,” he said.
But voters have expressed concerns about mail-in ballots for a range of reasons. An audit released last week by the U.S. Postal Service’s inspector general determined that seven processing and distribution facilities failed to deliver 1.6 million pieces of election-related mail on time between April and June of this year.
The report identified a number of issues for mail-in ballot processing and delivery, including ballots mailed without barcode mail-tracking technology, ballots mailed too close to the election date, and out-of-date voter addresses. In August, the USPS warned 46 states and the District of Columbia that it could not guarantee that all mail ballots would arrive in time to be counted for the general election.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy also announced sweeping organizational changes “in an effort to operate in a more efficient and effective manner and better serve customers.” In testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Aug. 24, DeJoy acknowledged a “deterioration in service” and committed to “delivering the nation’s ballots securely and on time” in the fall.
Amid these challenges, many voters worry about timely postal operations for the election. Jen Davis, 48, from Royal Oak, Michigan, said the irregular mail service in her town means she might receive things between one and three days a week. Rather than take a chance with her ballot, Davis said she would vote in person. “[The election] is just a nightmare waiting to happen. I think people who can go and vote in person need to vote in person.”
Many Black voters are also concerned about mail delays and the possibility of ballot manipulation after experiencing decades of voter suppression, said Cliff Albright, cofounder of Black Voters Matter Fund, a voter advocacy group.
“We like knowing that this [ballot] is going in a machine,” Albright said. “We’re skeptical of any process where we’re handing over our ballot to a postal system. And then having to trust that postal system.”
That’s a fear Trump played on more recently when he encouraged people voting by mail to still go to their polling place on Election Day to see that it’s been counted, and vote in person if it hasn’t. But voting by person after having mailed in a ballot is illegal, and the Georgia secretary of state this week said that his office is investigating 1,000 people for allegedly doing just that in the June primary.
Susan Johnson-Velez, 56, of Florida said she cherishes the ceremony of voting in person and feels more comfortable using that option even during the pandemic.
“With everything that’s going on right now at the Postal Service, the mail-in balloting, and, of course, COVID — people are scared. There’s so much that can still happen,” she said. “I’m not going to take any chance. I’m planning to go vote on Election Day. No mail-in balloting or absentee balloting for me.”
Many primary polling places were understaffed this year as concerns about the coronavirus discouraged volunteers. In 2018, 58 percent of general election poll workers were older than 60, an age range putting them at higher risk of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths.
The worker shortage contributed to many polling places being closed and hours-long lines for voters.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, saw its usual 180 polling locations drop to just five when it held its primaries in early April, while much of the country was shut down. Dane County, Wisconsin, fared better, but still had a “fraction” of its normal polling places open as a result of poll worker shortages, county clerk Scott McDonell said. The city of Madison, located in Dane County, had 66 places open rather than the usual 90-plus locations, he said. Dane County used National Guard members to assist with election operations.
Fulton County, Georgia, also dealt with a staffing shortage in primary, in addition to workers who were not sufficiently trained to use the state’s new $100 million voting system, Barron said.
In July, David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, wrote a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan expressing concern about 13,970 vacant positions for Election Judges, who help manage polling places. Since writing that letter, Garreis told the NewsHour that counties will use “voting centers” that any registered voter in that county can use, instead of designating specific polling places based on residence. This has enabled the state to reduce the number of needed voting locations and poll workers, he said. His county of Anne Arundel, for instance, went from 195 polling places to 31 vote centers.
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Garreis said Maryland has taken a number of steps to mitigate potential problems with longer voting lines. Maryland counties have modeled their new voting centers program after those used by “all-mail” states like Colorado and Utah. Maryland election officials also worked with a former elections director in Colorado to learn about best practices and will be scaling up voting equipment at the centers, he said. Garreis expressed confidence that these efforts paired with the expected large number of mail ballots will be safe and efficient.
To counteract the pandemic-related shortages more broadly, voting groups and local governments have launched campaigns to recruit less vulnerable poll workers.
Power the Polls is a national initiative partnering with businesses, media organizations and nonprofits to recruit 250,000 poll workers. Bringing in younger and more diverse participants will also be an important component of the campaign, said Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Center. He noted that it’s important to attract people with knowledge of technology and different languages.
Facilitating safe, efficient in-person voting during the pandemic is crucial, in addition to mail ballot options, said Sweren-Becker and Short, particularly for low-income and rural communities, as well as communities of color, where people may not have access to printers, the internet, or adequate mail service needed for mail voting.
Matt Masterson, an adviser with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, praised efforts by state officials to secure election infrastructure during a virtual conference in July for the National Association of Secretaries of State. Still, DHS testing of voting systems found vulnerabilities that allowed for data breaches, Masterson said. Causes for concern among security experts include paperless voting machines, foreign hacking and misinformation spread online.
Facebook and Twitter said last week that they removed a network of fake accounts spreading disinformation about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. In August, a statement from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center said foreign states “will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives” in 2020 — pointing specifically to China, Russia and Iran. China, the statement said, wants Trump to lose in November and is expanding its influence to shape political discussions about the U.S. election, while Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.”
The report stated that Iran “seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections,” and will “probably” focus on spreading disinformation online.
Microsoft also released a report Thursday stating that it had detected cyberattacks by China, Russia and Iran against people or organizations involved with the presidential election, “including unsuccessful attacks on people associated with both the Trump and Biden campaigns.” Contrary to the NCSC report indicating that China wants Trump to lose, Microsoft determined that China has attacked people associated with Biden’s campaign.
“The majority of these attacks were detected and stopped by security tools built into our products,” Microsoft said in the report, adding that those who were targeted or compromised had been notified.
At the state and local level, one report by the global cybersecurity company Emsisoft last year found 113 successful ransomware attacks on government agencies. Congress allocated $380 million for 2018 and $425 million for 2020 election operations. But Sweren-Becker of the Brennan Center said Congress should provide additional federal funding to state and local governments to help with efforts to close security gaps. “Much of the funding that election officials budgeted already for this year was used up in conducting their primary elections during a pandemic and used to take the extra safety precautions that were required,” Sweren-Becker said.
The Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act back in May that included $3.6 billion to help state and local governments with election operations during the pandemic. That measure has stalled in the Senate, and Senate Republicans’ relief bills — both a larger version introduced in July and a “skinny” version that failed to pass this week — have not included election funding for state and local governments.
Election officials noted that election security is an area that has seen a lot of investment in recent years, but remains a high concern. Counties throughout New York, for example, have worked to identify and address election security problems over the last decade, Kosinski of the state’s Board of Elections said, but those efforts were aimed at improving in-person voting processes rather than the surge of mail ballots the state is currently experiencing.
Dane County also invested in network upgrades to guard against potential breaches, McDonell said,but parts of Wisconsin still struggle. “We have counties that don’t have secure email. They don’t even have secure websites, like really basic stuff,” McDonell said. “That’s one of the frustrating things for us. We can build this great wall, but we’re only as strong as our weakest county.”
The potential challenges facing voting in the fall are varied and costly to address in a short time frame, leaving many uncertain of what lies ahead for the high-stakes November election.
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
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