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The Virus And The Vote

As you may recall, there were a lot of concerns going into the 2020 election about the potential for things to go horribly wrong. Books were written about the weak points in our bizarre and super-distributed system for running and certifying elections. The pandemic, and the chaos that resulted from how it was bungled by the Trump administration, jacked those worries up even higher.

And yet, with all that ambient anxiety, thousands of brand-new poll workers, ramped up absentee voting, and so many more alterations to old processes, everything went quite smoothly. Results were timely, no “Iowa Democratic caucus”-style screwups, and as we well know, vanishingly few instances of chicanery and lawbreaking. How did we pull it off? This report, from the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, provides some answers. It’s long, so let me just quote from the Introduction:

The 2020 U.S. election was both a miracle and a tragedy. It was a miracle in that election administrators, facing unprecedented challenges from a pandemic, were able to pull off a safe, secure, and professional election in which a record number of Americans turned out to vote. It was also a tragedy, though, because, despite these heroic efforts, lies about vote fraud and the performance of the system have cemented a perception among tens of millions of Americans that the election was “rigged.” This manufactured distrust has deeply damaged our democracy; the path to repairing it is not at all clear.

The Capitol Insurrection of 6 January 2021 will forever constitute the image of the 2020 election and the distrust that accompanied it. Despite the heroism and success we detail below, more than a hundred members of Congress voted to question and overturn the results in one or more states.

The enduring images of the 2020 election should have been very different. During the primary elections early in the year, the picture looked bleak, as poll-worker and polling-place shortages caused long lines of frustrated voters to risk their lives, while thousands of absentee ballots were rejected in places that had little experience with large-scale voting by mail. In the general election, however, an army of new poll workers, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and often administering the voting behind Lucite barriers, staffed polling places. Absentee voting also set records, as rates of canceled mail ballots were dramatically lower than before the pandemic.

How did the country pull off a successful election under pandemic circumstances? What changes to the election infrastructure were necessary to accomplish this task? How can we reconcile this measurable success with convictions, strongly held by a sizeable share of the electorate, that the election was rigged? These are the questions this article seeks to answer. Given the unfounded, partisan criticism that the election was “rigged” and “disastrous,” it is difficult in hindsight to reimagine what a true electoral disaster would have looked like and how close the United States came to experiencing one. The primary-season meltdowns in several states painted an ominous picture of institutional collapse threatening the general election. In several respects, the election system benefited from the timing of the pandemic, coming as it did in the middle of the presidential-primary season but hitting hardest just as Joseph Biden wrapped up the Democratic Party’s nomination. The baptism by fire in the primaries provided necessary lessons in how to solve pandemic-related problems so that both mail and polling-place voting could work properly come November.

A little light reading for you as we wait for our Democratic legislators to try to persuade a couple of recalcitrant Senators in Washington to get off their asses and take action to protect future elections and democracy in general. Found on Twitter.

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