Election officials are expecting an enormous increase in voting by mail — including in the Washington region — because people are afraid to go to the polls during a pandemic. It takes longer to count mail-in ballots than those cast in person.
So, on election night, initial returns based on in-person voting could show Trump winning, even though large numbers of mailed ballots remain uncounted.
At that point, the experts warn, Trump could declare himself the victor, saying the mailed ballots should be ignored because of the (baseless) risk of significant fraud. In states where Republicans control the voting process, he might get away with it.
“It is possible that he will say, ‘We should stop counting ballots because all those absentee ballots are illegitimate,’ ” said Trevor Potter, president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
“If his supporters believe that, it would be false but unfortunate in terms of the country accepting the credibility of the final election results,” said Potter, a former Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who was general counsel for the presidential campaigns of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, agreed that such a “nightmare scenario” is a risk.
“It’s absolutely to be expected that most of the votes will be cast by mail” and take days to count, Weiser said. “It’s really important that the public be educated beforehand about the facts of what’s going to occur.”
Preparing the public to vote in a pandemic is just one of a daunting number of challenges facing state and local officials in what promises to be the most chaotic presidential election in our lifetimes. The novel coronavirus has snarled logistics as the Trump administration resists providing financial support and appears intent on making the situation worse.
Trump said Thursday that he opposes both election aid for states and an emergency bailout for the U.S. Postal Service because he wants to restrict how many Americans can vote by mail.
Mail delivery has slowed because the recently appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has reduced overtime and taken mail-sorting machines out of service. The agency has warned 46 states, including Maryland and Virginia, and D.C. that voters may be disenfranchised because it cannot deliver mailed ballots in time to meet counting deadlines.
“I’m very concerned, as we have a historic confluence of dangers here,” Potter said. “We have massive absentee balloting in states that aren’t used to that. You have postal problems, when absentee balloting relies on that. You have a postmaster general who appears to be making it difficult to vote by mail. These are all issues, combined with the possibility that normal polling places may not be able to open [because of the pandemic] or may be moved.”
Weiser said: “Our election infrastructure has not been built for elections during a pandemic. . . . It’s not that it’s rocket science. There’s just a lot of choke points in the process that need to be shored up.”
The stakes may be critical in swing states, where the election could be close. That’s not the case in our mostly Democratic region, where polls show Joe Biden well ahead of Trump in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Regardless of the results, everyone should want a safe, smooth and honest election. And our area faces the same problems as the rest of the country.
The dramatic increase in voting by mail has stunned local officials and risks overwhelming staffers. Handling votes by mail is labor intensive. It’s a two-step process in Maryland and Virginia, where voters must first submit applications for ballots (by mail or online), and then mail the ballots or deposit them in drop boxes or at voting offices. (The District is mailing ballots to everyone.) In many cases, counting mail-in votes must be done by hand.
Montgomery County has seen “an extremely high pickup” in voting by mail, Deputy Election Director Alysoun McLaughlin told the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) at a briefing last week. The same is true in Virginia, which recently enacted laws making it easier to vote by mail.
“We are seeing vote-by-mail requests that far exceed previous elections and even our highest estimates for the upcoming election,” Loudoun Deputy Registrar Richard Keech told the COG.
Loudoun already has received 22,000 applications for ballots, compared with about 4,000 it sent out in 2016 in its first mailing in September.
“We fully expect to mail at least 40,000 ballots in our first mailing and potentially 100,000 or more throughout this season,” Keech said.
Those going to the polls may face delays because of shortages of elections judges, the volunteers who staff polling places. Large numbers are declining to serve this year because many are elderly and thus at high risk of catching the coronavirus, officials said.
This was already a problem in the primaries, and more staffers will be needed in the general election.
Fairfax County needed about 1,800 elections officers in the June primary, and about 600 dropped out late in the process, said John W. Farrell, a Fairfax attorney who specializes in election law.
“We’re going to need 3,200 to 3,600 in November,” Farrell said. “There’s a real question where we’re going to get the other several thousand people.”
Emily Scarr, the director of Maryland PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), said a large-scale training program is urgently needed because of the loss of “the most seasoned and experienced election staff.”
The shortage could worsen if judges fall ill.
“Every day that we operate, keep in mind that you’re increasing the odds that one of your elections judges is eventually going to say, ‘I’m sick, I’ve got covid,’ and then we have to quarantine that whole site,” David Garreis, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, told a meeting of the state Board of Elections last week.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) reluctantly agreed to allow jurisdictions to reduce the need for judges by consolidating voting in large centers, instead of using much higher numbers of regular polling places. But that means both elections officers and the public must adapt to new locations and mechanisms.
The District, Maryland and Virginia have all changed procedures this year from previous elections.
“Right now, there’s just massive confusion about what we’re doing,” D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said. “I’ve been on two community chats where people have no idea what’s going on.”
There’s still time to minimize the risks. Here are some steps that officials and experts recommend:
●If you’re voting by mail, submit your application (in Maryland and Virginia) and mail your ballot as early as possible. Instead of entrusting your ballot to the mail, consider depositing it in a drop box or delivering it to a voting office.
●If voting in person, consider doing so before Election Day. Early, in-person voting begins in Virginia on Sept. 18, in Maryland on Oct. 26 and in the District on Oct. 27.
●Assume we won’t learn the results on election night. It may take a week to know the victors.
Meanwhile, it would help if Congress and the White House would quickly agree to give the states and Postal Service the money they say they need to handle the increased costs.
That seems reasonable, given that our democracy is at stake.