Timothy L. O'Brien: Election Day could be brutal. Or maybe not

By Timothy L. O'Brien, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

Almost every year on Election Day, someone, somewhere in America intentionally or accidentally rams their car into a polling place. It happens with such regularity that it's become a dark joke among public officials and other insiders who monitor elections — evidence that crazy and sometimes violent things happen when people gather to vote in the U.S.

Last March, a guy backed his car into a St. Louis church, jumped out and began screaming obscenities at workers in the makeshift polling station there. He managed to pour an unidentified liquid from a big milk jug onto the floor, voting machines and at least one elderly woman before tossing chairs and tables around the room. After he was arrested, poll workers relocated their operation to a nearby public school, and voting continued.

That's just the way it goes, says Mindy Moretti, who has been covering elections for 15 years for Electionline, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to reporting on what makes it possible for all of us to vote. She wrote about the car-crash phenomenon a year ago, and while she's well aware of the outsized challenges at polling places this year — a pandemic, the threat of cyberattacks, a topsy-turvy U.S. Postal Service, and unfounded claims of ballot fraud and rigged elections from President Donald Trump — she's confident that public servants overseeing the nation's voting machinery are up to the task.

"Who would have ever thought we'd be where we are now," Moretti says. "I get a lot of questions and concerns from friends and I tell them all the same thing: Election officials got this. They will do whatever it takes to get it done. I wish more people had more confidence in them because I have complete confidence in them."

In a recent conference call with reporters hosted by the National Association of Secretaries of State, an umbrella group of officials who supervise voting in 40 states, the message was the same: We've got this. Republican and Democratic officials on the call emphasized that their work has always been bipartisan and that they've spent years planning for cyberhacks and months developing protocols to address public health concerns of COVID-wary voters.

Tens of thousands of extra poll workers have been recruited in many of the bigger states, and secretaries of state and local election commissioners have developed an array of online voter-education tools meant to combat disinformation and fearmongering. (You can find some of those tools here, here and here.) Many states have decades of experience handling absentee ballots, and frontline officials scoff at the idea that voting by mail is riddled with fraud.

On the other hand ...

An extraordinary amount of buffoonery, intimidation or violence might descend on polling places this year — well beyond anything election officials have contended with in the past. Trump, who continues to sag in polls, has seeded the waters for this, calling on an "army" of "poll watchers" to take to the streets on his behalf on Nov. 3. A private security company based in Tennessee has been recruiting former military operatives to "guard" polling sites in Minnesota on Election Day, according to the Washington Post, a maneuver Minnesota's attorney general said is illegal and meant to intimidate voters. The idea that private militia or the police might be lying in wait at polling places to thrash or arrest them is grounded in a historical reality that makes voters of color especially skittish about in-person voting this November.

Election officials say their states all have well-defined rules governing how observers must behave around polling places. They've also had elaborate and ongoing discussions with federal and local law enforcement about how to tackle possible surges in violence. Some of them say that many of the online rants about violence are just that: rants.

Voters are "going to be safe at the polls on Election Day," Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's secretary of state, told me. "The goal of a lot of that chatter is actually not to do these things but to deter people from voting. It's a form of voter intimidation achieved through rumor."

Benson isn't taking any chances, however. Last week, she banned firearms at Michigan polling places. And the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents 1,400 city leaders nationwide, has warned of its "significant concern that we may see voter intimidation efforts and protests, some possibly violent, in the days leading up to Nov. 3, on that day, and on the days following."

Old-fashioned flimflam is also at work. Lawmakers in states such as Ohio and Texas have tried to stifle early voting by limiting ballot drop boxes to just one per county. Compressing the number of polling places and limiting access disproportionately disenfranchises rural and low-income voters — as well as voters of color living in neighborhoods where registration has soared and people prefer to vote in person. Swinging in the opposite direction, the California Republican Party went so far as to install more than four dozen phony ballot boxes around three of the state's biggest counties, according to the New York Times. That's illegal.

But it is what's legal that may be the biggest hurdle for election officials. Democrats and Republicans have been lawyering up for months now, anticipating that wherever the November vote is close — particularly in swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida — the result will be chewed over in court. Legal challenges to voting procedures are already mounting, and many of them are dubious. Democrats and civil-rights advocates have had good luck defending Republican legal challenges to expanded mail-in voting; the GOP has fared better when those cases make their way from federal district courts to appellate courts packed with conservative Trump appointees.

So will there be a tsunami of lawsuits filed on or after Election Day, making Florida's notorious 2000 ballot recount look like child's play? Maybe. Do the election pros think they can handle that, too? Yep.

"It's what we do," says Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of North Carolina's state board of elections. "It's project management. It's logistics. It's planning. Much like you see with shuttle launches or big sporting events."

"If we have good administration, everything else will work out," she adds. "And we hope people remember when they go into polling places that they recognize that poll workers are their neighbors and they should be kind. These are baseball coaches and teachers and parents working hard to make sure that everyone can exercise their right to vote."


It might be helpful for everyone involved if we stopped calling our quadrennial presidential bake-off Election Day. Let's call it Election Month.

After all, the timing of Election Day itself is a congressional contrivance, set in stone 58 years after the Constitution was written, to take place on "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November." That date didn't conflict with spring plantings, summer work or fall harvests, didn't collide with Sunday worship, and landed before the onset of winter — perfect placement for an agrarian society. Corralling voters at polling places on the same day was also meant to blunt the impact of technology; the advent of the telegraph and instantaneous news meant that results from early-voting states might have an unfair impact on outcomes in states voting later.

The mid-19th-century view of "instantaneous" was quaint, as election updates since then have skated along ever-faster timelines shaped by newspapers, radio, TV and now social media.

But no matter how rapidly information is transmitted and shared, the mundane and indispensable handiwork of elections has remained the same: Mail-in and in-person ballots have to be tallied, the vote needs to be audited for accuracy (or "canvassed" in the parlance of election gurus), and each state then needs to certify its local outcomes. If county officials are happy, governors sign off on the result, and the National Archives receives a list of each state's Electoral College designees. All that takes weeks — sometimes more than a month — to complete.

Tabulation and verification have been handled this way for a long time. Results aren't likely to be wrapped up with a neat bow at midnight on Nov. 3, and Election Day outcomes are always unofficial anyhow. And yet, and yet. Media coverage — TV in particular — typically revolves around presidential horses racing across the finish line on Election Day. That makes it easier to shape narratives, adds drama, and boosts readership and ratings. Maybe that's what an impatient electorate craves, but it drives the public officials who monitor election timelines nuts. They'd like to rename all of this Election Month, too.

If voters were accustomed to waiting a month for an election to be finalized, maybe they'd be less anxious when it doesn't officially end in a single evening. Most of the time — if enough of the vote is tallied — it's reasonable for TV anchors and others in the media to make informed projections. Even then, patience is a virtue if margins of victory are razor-thin. Think of the Bush vs. Gore battle in Florida in 2000, or Trump's narrow, pivotal Wisconsin win in 2016, which wasn't called until well after midnight on Election Day.

A Democratic or Republican landslide this year may quickly make the outcome obvious, but a surge in new voter registrations and mail-in balloting will make the tally unusual and complex regardless. As of late Tuesday night, 37.4 million Americans had already voted, or about 27% of the 139 million votes cast overall in 2016, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a research firm. John Couvillon, a pollster who tracks early voting, estimates that 80 million to 91 million people may vote before Election Day.

In theory, early voting should help make counting easier. But more than a dozen states, including battlegrounds such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, don't allow early ballots to be counted until Election Day. Because counting mail-in ballots is relatively more laborious than tallying in-person votes, this slows things down. California, which has expanded ballot access through mail-in voting and other measures, saw 5.8 million people vote in its presidential primary earlier this year. State officials tallied 3 million of those votes the day of the primary, but it took seven weeks to count the rest. Pennsylvania didn't finish counting absentee ballots until 10 days after its primary in the spring.


Nothing is amiss when this happens. No fraud is afoot. Nothing's broken. Election officials are simply being careful and methodical. They'd rather be right than rushed, say Republican secretaries of state such as Kim Wyman of Washington, Paul Pate of Iowa and Frank LaRose of Ohio, and Democratic secretaries of state such as Maggie Toulouse Oliver of New Mexico and Katie Hobbs of Arizona.

"One of our biggest concerns is this need to call races as soon as election results are posted," Hobbs told me. "We're trying to normalize the idea that getting it right takes time."

A majority of Arizona's residents typically vote before Election Day, and the state has ample success with mail-in voting. But the onset of COVID-19 in the spring, followed by court battles around absentee ballots and calls to cancel Arizona's presidential primary, made that primary particularly hairy for people like Hobbs. Yet the primary still took place, and Hobbs is optimistic that her state's electoral machinery won't get derailed on Nov. 3.

"Nothing seems as scary now as March," she says.

Wisconsin was also mired in the COVID-19 outbreak during its spring primary, and a study of primary voting in Milwaukee, where only five of 182 polling places in the city were left open, found that turnout among Black voters was disproportionately suppressed by the consolidation. Unlike Arizona, Wisconsin has no tradition of absentee voting — so managing a massive surge in mail-in voting is a new test there.

Voting in Wisconsin is also balkanized: More than 1,800 municipalities run their own presidential elections. Like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin has a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature that have been at odds. Legislators in those states have pushed back against measures meant to make it easier to vote and to tally the outcome (such as extending ballot deadlines and permitting early ballots to be tabulated before Election Day).

Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin's elections commissioner, says that adjusting to the swell of absentee balloting has been as daunting as insulating voters from misinformation and cyberattacks. And she expects more legal battles. She's ready.

"We always have lots of new things coming at us. We always find a way," Wolfe told me. "Will it be a challenge? Of course it will. But I have every confidence that we'll make it work."


Florida, the poster child for the perils of scrappy, politically charged recounts, has embraced mail-in voting for a long time, and it processes ballots as they arrive. So it's unlikely that absentee ballots will swamp election officials there. Florida's secretary of state, Laurel Lee, declined to be interviewed, but she has told the Miami Herald that she's confident voting will run smoothly.

Lee, a Republican, appointed last year by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, recently backed DeSantis's efforts to install state guards around ballot drop boxes and to limit voting rights of former felons, moves that voting rights advocates say will suppress the vote. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are currently running neck and neck in Florida polls, so any further maneuvers by Lee and DeSantis may reverberate across the entire presidential race.

If Florida in 2020 doesn't wind up being like the Florida of 2000, another contender is waiting the wings: Pennsylvania. There has been heavy turnover among senior election officials in more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties over the past year, and efforts to install additional drop boxes around the state have been stalled in the courts. On Monday, the Supreme Court resolved a separate legal standoff in Pennsylvania when it narrowly overturned a lower-court ruling that mail-in ballots in the state wouldn't count if they were received the Friday after Election Day.

Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania's secretary of state, declined to be interviewed and didn't respond to written questions about the presidential election. She's a Democrat, appointed by Governor Tom Wolf, and both of them have been at loggerheads with a state legislature controlled by Republicans.

Boockvar and Wolf have unsuccessfully petitioned the general assembly to change election law to allow officials to begin counting mail-in ballots prior to Election Day. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has sued Pennsylvania, seeking, among other things, to ban drop boxes, change canvassing rules and allow Trump's "poll watchers" inside election offices.

Whether or not Pennsylvania unspools, observers who have been watching election battles from the trenches for many years think public servants managing polling places will pull the country through the most consequential presidential contest of the modern era. "They like to call themselves natural risk managers," says Maria Benson, communication director of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "They take lots of problems in stride to make sure no one is disenfranchised."

Electionline's Moretti notes how freaked out voters and everyone else recently became when a fiber-optic cable was cut in Virginia, shutting down online voter registration in the state on the last day of eligibility.

"In that moment, people panicked," Moretti says. "And that's everybody. Except election officials. Because they know."

It turned out that road crews on a construction project had accidentally severed the cable, but that didn't stop conspiratorial gossip from making the rounds about why voters couldn't register in Virginia. In short order, online registration was restored and the state extended the eligibility period to make up for lost time.

"Mistakes happen in every single election. It's not a sign of bigger problems when there's missing information on absentee ballots," Moretti says. "But this year there's a heightened awareness that the entire world is watching. No one wants to make a mistake when the world is watching."



Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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