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- Experts say the proper functioning of democracy is at risk because of the complications raised by holding elections during a pandemic. Elements of concern include new voting procedures, heightened political polarization, and a deluge of misinformation on social media.
Remember Florida’s presidential election recount in 2000, with the hanging chads, the magnifying glasses, and the weeks of courtroom battles about how to count the votes? There could be post-election vote-counting chaos again in the 2020 election -- maybe in Florida, maybe some other state, or even in several states at the same time.
The reason is the heavy reliance this year on slower-to-count mail balloting during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, it might not even be an election "night" at all. Depending on how close the election is in key states, the confusion, and even mischief, it could be more like election week.
To minimize the risk of coronavirus spreading, many states (though not all) have eased the process of mail voting, often by eliminating the need for an "excuse" to vote by mail. A few states are going so far as to send ballots to every active registered voter in 2020 -- California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. They join five states that were already effectively vote-by-mail states: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah.
Experts say that these decisions about how to run state-by-state elections are just one element of a toxic brew that poses a risk to the proper functioning of democracy. The other elements include concern about the pandemic, heightened political polarization, and a deluge of misinformation on social media.
"Americans can no longer take for granted that election losers will concede a closely fought election after election authorities or courts have declared a winner," wrote a panel of election experts on ensuring public confidence in the 2020 elections. "Current American politics feature severe hyperpolarization and an increasingly partisan media and social media environment. Mistrust is high. It is harder for voters to get reliable political information. Incendiary rhetoric about rigged or stolen elections is on the rise, and unsubstantiated claims of rigged elections find a receptive audience especially among those who are on the losing end of the election."
Here are some of the specific challenges facing the elections process:
• Voting by mail raises a host of questions that voters may find unfamiliar. What are your state’s rules and deadlines for requesting a ballot? If you still want to vote in person, what is the availability of in-person polling places in your state? How do you fill out the ballot correctly and avoid it being thrown out? And can the U.S. Postal Service, which has money problems and has undergone a staff shakeup, be counted on to deliver the surge of mail ballots?
• Counting ballots may take longer than previous years. Ballots cast by mail require extra steps to verify a voter’s identity, including comparing signatures to prevent voter voter fraud or double counting. This takes time. Some states allow ballots postmarked prior to Election Day to be counted even if they arrive in the mail several days after the polls close. So it may be impossible to call the winner of the presidential race, or other key contests, on election night.
• Partisan patterns may be revealed when ballots are counted. Not only is mail balloting expected to be used much more heavily this fall due to the pandemic, but surveys suggest that Republican voters are following President Donald Trump’s skepticism about mail voting and will prefer to vote in person. If this holds, it means that the election night returns might skew Republican, with mail ballots that arrive later skewing Democratic. In some cases, this trend is reinforced by rural, more Republican areas having their ballots tallied first, while urban, more Democratic areas with heavier ballot loads are counted later. While some states had already demonstrated this pattern in past elections, the expected increase in mail ballots this year is expected to magnify the impact of differences in vote tabulation patterns. Voters need to keep these patterns in mind as they wait for the ballots to be counted.
• The media will need to be vigilant against misinformation and baseless claims. The media will need to reinforce the broader context of vote counting and keep voters from jumping to inaccurate conclusions. A panel of voting experts has published a report that warns that "mistrust is high. It is harder for voters to get reliable political information. Incendiary rhetoric about rigged or stolen elections is on the rise, and unsubstantiated claims of rigged elections find a receptive audience especially among those who are on the losing end of the election."
• Social media still has problems with misinformation. Voters, as well as journalists, will need to adopt a skeptical eye toward claims on social media. This has become especially important given efforts by Trump and his allies to paint mailed votes as broadly fraudulent, even though such claims are inaccurate. On the other side, claims of voter suppression have increased due to fewer Election Day polling places in some states, but such complaints sometimes soft-pedal the steps made to expand early voting and vote by mail.
If you’re someone who enjoys gathering around the TV with your family and friends on election night, there are some of the key takeaways before you settle in the night of Nov. 3:
Early leaders may not ultimately win. Shifts in which candidate is ahead as the counting progresses are natural and aren’t "nefarious," experts agree.
"It just means that different parts of states, with different political and demographic profiles, will be reporting at different points in the process, said Drew McCoy, the president of Decision Desk HQ, which reports election-related data to media outlets, political organizations, and private companies.
Beware of "percentage of precincts reporting" numbers. The metric was long used in TV chyrons and online databases to indicate how much of the vote has been counted. But in an election conducted heavily by mail, the "precincts reporting" percentage is almost meaningless. The percentage of precincts counted may be close to 100% yet not take into account a large number of untallied mail ballots.
"We should never see a ‘100% of precincts reporting’ language again when there are thousands of absentee ballots yet to count and include in the totals," said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine.
Networks say they have transitioned to "percentage of expected vote," but "that of course poses its own challenges when you are changing the nature of how people vote as much as so many states are," said Rick Klein, ABC News’ political director.
Beware of political spinning. Early leads for one candidate can be hijacked by partisan commentators and then amplified on social media. For instance, more partisan-aligned media outlets may be comfortable "coloring in" the map quickly with the leads as they stand, regardless of whether or not the states have counted enough votes to justify a final call, said Edward B. Foley, an election law specialist at Ohio State University.
Widespread sharing of misleading maps on social media could "generate a narrative that one candidate already has prevailed when, in fact, there are lots of votes still left to count," Foley said.
Allowing such claims to spread could damage public trust in the election if the other candidate is ultimately declared the winner, "Political leaders should come together and speak out against candidates or groups who declare victory early or raise false claims about ballot tampering," said the report.
Be judicious about your news sources. Seek out political coverage that takes pains to explain the ballot-counting process to voters. For instance, trustworthy media sources will use the phrase "too early to call." Reliable media outlets will also make clear that slow counts or shifts in leads are not a sign of fraud or failed processes, and they will debunk viral misinformation, especially if it’s amplified by political figures.
Vote early if you can. Voters can help streamline the ballot-counting process by not waiting until the last minute to mail in their ballots, said Matthew Weil, director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "When I talk to voters I tell them to do it earlier in the process, so-called ‘flatten the curve’ of absentee voting so we don’t have to overwhelm the system," he said.
The Poynter Institute will convene experts and journalists online to discuss these issues and best practices over the course of two days. The webinar will include four panels in the mornings and afternoons of Sept. 9 and 10. Participation is free to the public but an RSVP is required. Register here by Sept. 2.
PolitiFact, "How to make sure your ballot is counted this fall," Aug. 17, 2020
PolitiFact, "Be patient on election night 2020: Counting the returns will take time," June 18, 2020
PolitiFact, "How battleground states are preparing for the pandemic election’s massive increase in voting by mail," May 19, 2020
Poynter.org, "The Weirdest Election "Night" Ever: What journalists and election-watchers need to know about the 2020 elections and a working democracy," accessed Aug. 28, 2020