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MIT Technology Review

How America must prepare for a pandemic election

Voting by mail is the only sensible option, but it's not going to happen without swift action.

Simoul Alva

Most Americans are under orders to stay at home, but Jeff Ellington is preparing for the busiest year he’s ever had. Runbeck Election Services in Arizona, which produces vote-by-mail ballots, has stocked its 90,000-square-foot (8,300-square-meter) facility in Phoenix with 200,000 half-ton rolls of paper—and there’s much more on order.

Ellington, Runbeck’s chief operating officer, is preparing for an election unlike any the United States has seen before. He says the company usually works with 21 states to produce and mail ballots so that people can vote from home. Today, staff are fielding calls from almost every state in the country, taking phone meetings and video chats anywhere they can safely self-isolate, whether that’s in their kitchens, their yards, or their cars. But in the next few weeks they’re going to have to get back to work. 

The machinery of electoral politics has been thrown into turmoil by covid-19. While primaries have already been held in some states, others have been delayed or transformed. All the typical activities of a campaign—canvassing for votes, trying to drive the political conversation, grabbing the public’s attention—seem impossible in a time of strange and deadly crisis. Right now, we don’t even know if it will be safe to vote at polling places when November rolls around. The only thing that does seem to be clear is that 2020’s election is going to be a challenge of unprecedented proportions.

Unsafe options

The biggest problem—and the one occupying Ellington and his staff, as well as politicians, campaign managers, and many voters—is also the most obvious one: How will voting actually happen?

There are three possible solutions. The first is to continue traditional in-person voting at a polling station on Election Day. 

Crowded polling places have, for better or worse, become emblematic of American democracy. But if the virus’s spread continues into the fall—and infectious-disease modelers say it very likely will—then these gatherings could be willfully dangerous to public health, and not just that of the voters themselves. Reports from Florida to California, where primary voting went ahead despite the growing pandemic, show election officials and poll workers—who are generally older and more vulnerable—falling sick.

“I was sadly on a call yesterday with election officials in California,” says Tammy Patrick, an elections expert at the Democracy Fund. “One of them has the coronavirus, and they know for a fact that they contracted it during the primary season. So it literally is a question of life and death. Conducting an entirely in-person election would put voters at risk, poll workers at risk, election officials, and candidates too.”

"Conducting an entirely
in-person election would put voters at risk, poll workers at risk, election officials, and candidates too"

Tammy Patrick, Democracy Fund

A second option is to spread in-person voting out over days or weeks to reduce crowding. This is not impossible—39 states and Washington, DC, already allow early voting—but it is still a health risk.

The third and safest answer, most experts agree, is voting by mail. It’s a tried and trusted system already embraced by 20% of US voters. But on such short notice, making it happen everywhere is a lot more complex than it sounds. 

Some states, like Oregon and Colorado, already do almost all their voting this way. Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, Utah, and Washington are majority vote-by-mail, with support from all sides. Some are trying to make the switch: Georgia and Michigan have announced that they will be sending absentee ballots to every single voter. But others, such as Louisiana and West Virginia, make postal voting especially difficult.

In any case, even state governments don’t have full control of what happens during the vote. Instead of one election authority, or even 50, there are more than 5,000 separate local jurisdictions that run the country’s elections. Preparing them all for rapid change will be overwhelming. But there isn’t really an alternative.

“We have to determine how we are going to make sure that our democracy continues to function,” says Amber McReynolds, a former Colorado election official and now the head of the National Vote at Home Institute. “This is an emergency. Vote-by-mail is one of the only solutions we have right now to make sure all Americans can vote effectively, safely, and securely.”

Going postal

If the decision to switch to vote-by-mail is made, a second problem arises: the gargantuan task of getting tens of millions of extra voting papers into people’s hands. Ellington says Runbeck, one of just a handful of national election services companies, has the capacity and materials to produce just over 4 million extra ballots, and there are around 250 million eligible voters in America. Following government recommendations, 95% of Runbeck’s staff were working from home in March, but the company is now in the process of bringing many of them back on site to deal with what’s about to happen. 

The work is complicated. While mail-in voting slips may look much like ordinary mass mailings, they are also individualized and differ widely from county to county and state to state. Envelopes have to be custom printed with the correct addresses, county logos, tracking data, and information that gets ballots back to their local counties for tabulation. Proofreading, gathering resources, educating voters, and dealing with counting processes, new election laws, complex hardware needs, and sluggish bureaucracy are just a few of the hurdles officials face.

And on a raw, physical level, the sheer quantity of paper required to produce these precisely printed ballots and envelopes is mind-boggling. The 100,000 tons of paper already at Runbeck’s facility is not exactly what you’ll find at your local Staples or OfficeMax.

“Our rolls are about 1,000 pounds [450 kilograms],” Ellington explains. “We run it through a printing press, and out the other end come about 20,000 ballots every hour. We have the capacity of producing a little over 1 million ballots per day out of our facility.”

SIMOUL ALVA

Right now, American companies like International Paper face a rapidly changing environment because of the virus. On the one hand, work they thought they’d be doing has fallen through as the country shuts down; on the other, there will be an influx of orders as states and counties decide to make the switch. When exactly Runbeck gets its bumper order for more paper depends on where it fits on the priority list, says Ellington.

And, critically, there are strict time limits, Ellington explains. “In the situation we’re in now, decisions need to be made in April because of the volume we’re talking about,” he says. “The equipment is not simple. The staffing and training are extensive. If we have a massive push to vote-by-mail, the planning has to start now, and people need to start thinking differently.”
And then there’s the problem that voting by mail, even if experts recognize it as the best, safest option in a pandemic, is deeply unpopular in some quarters.

Republican rejections

In March, as the number of coronavirus cases in the US started to spike, President Donald Trump took to his favorite TV haunts to fight against the idea of mail voting. In an interview with Fox & Friends, he criticized Democrats as they pushed to include vote-by-mail support in the $2 trillion stimulus bill. 

“The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said. “They had levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

No matter that the president and first lady had recently registered to cast their own absentee ballots from their new home state of Florida; Republicans have repeatedly opposed expansion of voting rights for absentee and mail-in ballots, claiming that it increases fraud.

That doesn’t reflect reality, however. Oregon has seen over 100 million mail-in ballots since switching to vote-by-mail in 1998, and no one has ever found significant numbers of fraudulent votes. In 2016, out of over 2 million voters, only 10 Oregonians were convicted of vote fraud. (In fact, mail votes incorporate a number of security measures, including bar-code tracking of ballots and accurate voter registration databases. Most of the time, signatures are used to verify identity.)

However, Trump has built part of his political success on lying about mass voter fraud, and the Republican Party has mounted efforts to make voting harder, not easier, such as purging voter rolls and adding further identity requirements. Vote-by-mail is a victim of that partisan attack, even if evidence shows it can increase turnout across the board.

In the end, the stimulus bill passed in March did include $400 million to help states with their election problems. It’s a big number, but less than a quarter of the amount voting experts say is needed to run this election safely during the pandemic. “I think it shows a really lamentable lack of properly prioritizing the importance of elections that are the bedrock of our democracy,” says Eddie Perez of the Open Source Election Technology Institute.

Still, things could change. When Congress returns later in April, a more robust vote-by-mail bill championed by Democratic senators Ron Wyden and Amy Klobuchar is expected to become a priority. It would give even more cash—the exact amount is still being decided—to those who actually run elections, designating it to speed up the difficult transition to vote-by-mail.

The bill, known as the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, would also ensure that people who cannot vote by mail have more time to vote in person by requiring at least 20 days of early voting to prevent long lines and crowds. It would give states money to hire and train new poll workers to avoid endangering the older folks who usually fill that role.

Wyden and Klobuchar may or may not secure the funding they want or the votes in Congress they require. But more money is definitely required to manage the shift properly. McReynolds’s National Vote at Home Institute tallied up the cost in Michigan, including the price of facilities, infrastructure, ballot mailing, voter education, professional services, and employee salaries. Final bill: $37.5 million for that single state, and only if they start the work today.

Ground game gone

Even if the voting process is expanded, authorities act quickly, and they get all the funds they need, there’s a whole other universe of issues to solve. For example, if so much of the country is under shelter-in-place orders, how will the campaign be fought?

Already we’re seeing election season shift as the crisis changes the way we interact and communicate. Rallies have moved from arenas to live streams. For the Democratic presidential primary debates, TV studio audiences were told to stay home. And fundraising has plummeted as markets have gone through some of the steepest drops and most dizzying ascents in US history. When millions of Americans file for unemployment simultaneously, no one is thinking much about donating to their favorite candidates.

Jaime Lennon, a spokesperson for Dutch Ruppersberger, a congressman from Maryland, says business as usual is not an option. “He’s so busy right now,” she says.

“We are hitting near records in terms of phone calls and emails from constituents that need help, whether it be unemployment, or small-business owners needing help navigating the new aid package, or just folks with medical questions, like questions about the availability of testing … It seems like all election operations are on pause at the moment.”

"We are hitting near records in terms of phone calls and emails from constituents that need help… It seems like all election operations are on pause at the moment."

Jaime Lennon, Congressional aide

Even if there were time to campaign, what would that look like when supporters can’t go knocking on doors to drum up votes and the economic crisis is draining the bank accounts of grassroots donors?

“There is no sunny spin if you are running against an incumbent. It’s devastating,” says Brianna Wu, a software engineer and candidate for Congress in Massachusetts. Unable to knock on doors, Wu may struggle even to get the signatures needed to end up on the ballot, a task her campaign was previously well ahead on.

There are plenty of ways to target voters without ever having to meet anyone in person, like phone banking, television ads, and social media. But Wu, who ran and lost in 2018, says it’s not enough.

“We’ve certainly been fortunate in having a very strong digital game, but one of the lessons I learned in the 2018 race is you cannot win an election by just hanging out online,” she says. “I got about half the votes I needed to win by focusing on digital. And that was great for a first-time candidate, but my hardest lesson is you cannot win without a strong field operation. And I find myself asking, how the hell are we going to do that?” 

Many candidates—including Wu—had been focused on building the kind of ground game that famously catapulted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory in New York City: knock on doors, talk with people, win votes. Now Wu’s campaign is calling up individual houses and asking to send over petitions, pens, and envelopes to get signatures and move their fight forward. Meanwhile, conversations about fundraising are next to impossible.

“My theory is this crisis will benefit the status quo,” Wu says. “It will come down to name recognition if people vote at all.”

The fog of online war

The social-media platforms that were exploited as conduits for disinformation in the 2016 election will have more impact than ever in the 2020 campaign: there simply is no better way to reach voters under lockdown. Though the platforms now have new rules and algorithms to limit disinformation, a rapid shift to making the campaigns even more digital creates new opportunities for misleading voters.

China, where the pandemic began, first tried to cover up the disease: now it has armies of propagandists spreading conspiracy theories about covid-19’s origins. European Union officials, meanwhile, say Russia is undertaking a “significant disinformation campaign” against Western Europe, intent on sowing chaos and uncertainty during a crisis.

The biggest disinformation threat the US faces, however, may be domestic. In 2016, Trump tried to undermine trust in election results by saying that if he didn’t win, it would be because the system was rigged. And during the coronavirus crisis, while his rivals for the presidency have been muted, he has used his daily press briefings to repeatedly downplay the severity of the pandemic, rewrite the historical record about his response to the situation, and distort or lie about things like the effectiveness of drugs and the availability of ventilators. 

“You want a leader to give people hope, but you need a leader to be honest,” says Angus King, a senator from Maine who cochaired the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a project meant to define the US’s national strategy online. “What did Churchill say at the beginning of World War II? ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ He told the British it was going to be hard, with no sugarcoating. President Trump said it’ll be like a miracle and it will just go away, and that this malaria drug is a gift from God. Turns out it isn’t. That’s harmful.” 

No stopping

In the fall of 2018, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the western Pacific Ocean slammed into the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the US. The storm had intensified over the span of three days into a category 5 super-typhoon, with winds reaching 175 miles (280 kilometers) per hour. Typhoon Yutu made landfall on October 24, killing dozens of people, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of buildings, and disrupting life in ways no one there had ever seen before.

The Northern Mariana Islands pushed Election Day back a week in order to begin recovering from the storm first. Remarkably, this had never happened before in US history: elections have taken place on schedule through not just the influenza pandemic of 1918 but two world wars and even the Civil War.

That means the likelihood of the national election being pushed back or even canceled is virtually nil. Election experts and constitutional lawyers widely agree that such a change would require a constitutional amendment, and little about the current political climate suggests that Congress could pass one.

A bigger concern is that without the option to vote by mail, the pandemic will discourage people from voting altogether. The 1918 flu outbreak may have been responsible for low turnout in that year’s midterm election (though turnout fell for the next two midterms as well). More recently, France held its nationwide municipal elections on March 15—just one day after a national lockdown was announced in response to the coronavirus. Turnout was low, and the next round of elections was pushed back by three months as a result. Low turnout in November will inevitably invite claims that the results lack legitimacy. 

“Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to roll out major changes in election rules in the midst of a major election,” says Richard Hasen, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of a recent book on threats to American democracy. “But we’re facing an unprecedented health emergency. And so we’re not going to have a perfect election. The question is how we can make it as good as possible and disenfranchise as few people as possible.”

The answer—for voters and for democratic institutions alike—is clear: if America wants to hold an election that produces a “normal” result without sacrificing people’s health, it has a blueprint to work from. It needs to start now, even if the solution isn’t perfect. And it’s going to require one hell of a lot of paper.