1. Michigan’s Jocelyn Benson (D)
Why her state is one to watch: It’s one of three states that helped Trump win in 2016 after having long gone to Democratic presidential nominees. This year, polls show Democrat Joe Biden leading there.
What the mail voting situation looks like there: Even before the pandemic, this was going to be Michigan’s first big vote-by-mail election after voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment to allow no-excuse mail voting. But Michigan has been the subject of litigation to expand its system even more. For example, voting-rights groups are suing to try to get Michigan to allow ballots to be accepted after Election Day.
Michigan was one of several swing states that did not allow ballots to be opened for processing until after Election Day, but Republican and Democratic politicians in the state recently agreed to change the law to allow ballots to be processed (but not counted) a day earlier. And in response to a lawsuit from voting rights advocates, Benson agreed to give voters the opportunity to fix their signature if the one on their ballot didn’t match the state’s record.
About Benson: She’s a Democrat who was elected in 2018 and immediately started transitioning Michigan to a vote-by-mail state. She’s also spoken out very strongly about robocalls in the fall spreading disinformation to Black voters on mail voting. And she’s been a frequent Trump target. In May, Trump falsely accused her of automatically sending out ballots to voters. (Michigan sends out ballot applications.) Then Trump attacked her in September after her office mistakenly sent out overseas absentee ballots that didn’t list Vice President Pence’s name.
Benson told The Fix she feels like Michigan is in a good place to handle such an intense political spotlight with a new system of voting, to have ballots counted by the Friday after the Nov. 3 election, and to potentially be a model for future vote-by-mail states. “Our goal is to demonstrate how you can run a successful, record-breaking election in a pandemic and in the midst of a partisan environment,” she said. “Democracy can prevail, and here’s how.”
2. Pennsylvania’s Kathy Boockvar (D)
Why her state is one to watch: It’s another state that helped Trump narrowly win in 2016, and both sides see it as a potential tipping point in this race. Polls show Biden leading.
What the mail voting situation looks like there: This is the first general election in which Pennsylvania voters can all vote by mail. But how they do is still complicated by lots of litigation and a government divided between a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature.
Republicans and the Trump campaign have unsuccessfully challenged the state’s use of drop boxes for ballots; tried to end a state rule allowing ballots arriving up to three days late to be counted; and tried to allow people from other counties to be poll watchers. The fight over whether to count late-arriving ballots went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which deadlocked on what to do.
Republicans did successfully litigate that naked ballots, or those returned without their second envelope — a common mistake among voters casting ballots by mail for the first time — won’t be counted in the general election.
Like Michigan, Pennsylvania does not allow ballots to start to be processed for counting before Election Day, which means this pivotal state could be delayed in producing results.
A drawn-out counting process in Pennsylvania has national Democrats on edge. If the ballots aren’t counted by the Dec. 14 deadline for the electoral college to meet, Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature can legally appoint electors. That has some in the state concerned that Republican lawmakers could take advantage of post-election chaos to hand Trump a win. A top Pennsylvania Republican denied to The Washington Post having conversations about such a possibility.
About Boockvar: She’s a former voting rights attorney appointed to this job in January by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D). She’s been a vocal advocate for trying to get the legislature to allow ballots to start being opened before Election Day to speed things along. In September, Trump seized on news that nine military ballots had been thrown out in Pennsylvania as an example of voter fraud. Boockvar launched an investigation and said it was a “bad error” and instituted more training for poll workers.
“We’ve had more changes to Pennsylvania elections and how we run elections and how we vote in Pennsylvania over the last two years than we’ve seen over the last century,” she told The Post recently.
3. Arizona’s Katie Hobbs (D)
Why her state is one to watch: This traditionally Republican-leaning state is the swingiest it’s been at the presidential and Senate level, and Democrats have a real chance to win here, according to polls.
What the mail voting situation looks like there: Arizona also had an already robust vote-by-mail program, with no-excuse absentee voting. Additionally, it provides voters prepaid postage to return their ballots and allows election officials to start counting ballots two weeks before Nov. 3. But like Florida, it excludes mailed ballots that are received after Election Day, no matter when they are postmarked.
And there are a ton of lawsuits that could change the way people vote at the last minute. Among them, Democrats and voting-rights advocates have sued the state to allow voters to fix an unsigned ballot envelope rather than throwing it out.
Next year, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to a number of Arizona’s voting laws, such as who can return a ballot filled out by someone else.
About Hobbs: She’s a former top state lawmaker and Democrat who won a 2018 election. She’s in a unique position as a Democratic official working in a largely Republican-controlled state, and as such is on the receiving end of a number of Democratic lawsuits trying to change Arizona voter laws.
She’s also been receptive to responding to national issues. In response to Postal Service warnings about delayed ballot delivery, she recommended Arizona voters submit their ballots seven days, rather than six, before the election.
And she has not been afraid to criticize or confront Trump, including when he refused to endorse a peaceful transfer of power. Hobbs previously told The Post that she’s thinking critically about how to police voter intimidation at the polls.
Hobbs told The Fix that, like most election officials, her main concern about holding a smooth election stems from the president’s inaccurate claims about mail voting: “A lot of the concerns result from the misinformation we are seeing out there, mostly from the White House and the attorney general about voting by mail not being secure.”
4. Wisconsin’s bipartisan election commission
Why this state is one to watch: It went for Trump last time, but Biden could flip it this time around. Its government is divided between a Democratic governor and Republican state legislature, and their fight in the spring about how to vote in a pandemic led to a lot of confusion and last-minute court decisions changing the rules on voters.
What the mail voting situation looks like there: For the general election, Wisconsin expanded its mail voting program by automatically mailing ballot applications to all registered voters who hadn’t yet applied to vote by mail. Wisconsin has allowed people to vote without an excuse since 2000. Wisconsin doesn’t allow ballots to be processed until the morning of Election Day, and it requires voters to get a witness signature.
The big litigation was about when ballots must be received. Currently it’s Election Day, but Democrats appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to allow six more days for ballots to be returned as the state becomes a hot spot for the coronavirus pandemic. A week before Election Day, the court ruled 5-3 against Democrats.
More about the commission: Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that has a group of people, rather than one elected or appointed official, handle elections. Wisconsin’s commission is set up to be down-the-line bipartisan, with six appointed commissioners, three from each major party. Their staff are nonpartisan. Another swing state, North Carolina, also has an election board rather than one official.
Wisconsin is also unique in that it gives extraordinary power to its cities and towns to run elections. In such a high-turnout one as this, officials say the main concern is making sure communities have enough poll workers and local election officials to count results. That could delay results, said Reid Magney, the public information officer for the commission. “It may take a while, but it doesn’t mean something is wrong,” he said. “It means election officials are doing their job to make sure every vote is counted and counted accurately.”
Correction: Wisconsin only expanded its vote-by-mail program this year to mail applications to registered voters who hadn’t yet applied to vote by mail.