WASHINGTON -- Long lines. Electronic tablets failing. Last-minute legal haggling. Delayed results because of a surge in absentee balloting. And a president casting doubt over the whole "rigged" process.
As Joe Biden expands his national and state polling lead over Donald Trump, Democrats can't shake this nightmare November scenario: That even a Biden advantage heading into Election Day could be nullified by chaos at the polls, layered by added confusion around the fast-changing voting laws that officials are adjusting for an ongoing pandemic.
"The thing that I am probably most concerned about," Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon acknowledged to former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe on his podcast recently, "is voting in this country." It's risen to such a priority that she indicated the campaign is debating running ads explicitly on voter education.
Even before voter accessibility was seen as arguably the most significant potential hurdle to a successful election year for Democrats, party officials had been taking steps to avoid -- or at least reduce -- chances for such an abominable ordeal, with early staffing and new technology to pinpoint and remedy problems.
Incidents that materialized during this spring's messy primaries in states like Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania heightened the unease, but also served as valuable training ground for what's to come this fall.
"What I worry about is going into an election 3-4-5 points up ... that could be impacted in close swing states if people don't have the ability to cast votes," said Dan Kanninen, a strategist who has worked for Mike Bloomberg and Obama.
A fleet of Democratic-aligned and nonpartisan groups are raising awareness, lobbying state and county policymakers and instigating lawsuits to enhance voting access. The Democratic National Committee demonstrated its commitment to the issue earlier than ever before by beginning staffing its voter protection team back in April of 2019.
Whereas the party traditionally ramps up these efforts in the fall before the election, this cycle the DNC has been preparing for challenges at the ballot box for more than a year, dedicating voter protection directors to states like Virginia and Pennsylvania last year. At present, they have them in 19 states.
The coronavirus has ensured this election will look different regardless. But new pressure on financially strapped states to safely administer elections as older, veteran polling workers opt to stay home to protect their health is causing fresh problems.
"I think the thought was, maybe, well, we're going to mail ballots, so more people will vote by mail and we don't need as many in-person voting locations. I think what you've seen in Georgia and Nevada specifically is that that's not true," said Reyna Walters-Morgan, the DNC's director of voter protection. "You can't replace in person voting locations. You have to have enough in-person voting options available because even if you do mail those ballots, people are still going to show up."
With two U.S. Senate races and a razor-thin presidential contest, Georgia is an emerging battleground that is providing Democrats with both optimism and anxiety. Its June primary was hampered by lines that extended past midnight, last-minute polling place changes and allegations of disenfranchisement of Black voters.
"Georgia is the poster child for this dysfunction," said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, during a recent U.S. House committee hearing.
The state's July 21 runoff elections will be a key test to see if the problems are reduced.
But Republican lawmakers there are now pushing legislation that would halt the mailing of absentee ballot request forms to voters, placing the responsibility on voters to initiate the process to vote by mail. Studies show that white, older Republican voters are the most likely to request absentee ballots.
Rep. Dwight Evans, who represents a majority African American district in Philadelphia, said many of his constituents don't trust a vote-by-mail process at a time when the president is threatening resources for the U.S. Postal Service.
"It gives a sense of uncertainty. That's why they go to the polls and vote. Because they feel as if -- and I can't argue -- it looks like it's a strategy to prevent them from having full access to the polls," Evans said. "In their heads, the only way they feel that they are going to actually ensure that their vote will count is they go to the polling place."
Evans is sounding the alarm for Pennsylvania to add more staffers and secure voter drop boxes to minimize waits at polling places after it took his state more than a week to tally its June primary results. Biden recently said on "The Daily Show" it could take until December for a winner to be declared in the state where he was born.
"This to me should be the No. 1 issue ... no matter who you're for, Biden or Trump," Evans said. "You can't take this for granted. This system doesn't have the capacity for the election in 2020."
Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore called her state's primary "catastrophic" after voters waited in excruciatingly long lines and thousands never received absentee ballots they requested. But with the GOP-controlled state legislature opposed to conducting their election entirely by mail, Democrats said a robust education program will be necessary so voters understand deadlines for absentee ballot requests and returns.
"We are going to have smart codes on the ballots so people can track their ballots like you would a package," said Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
While DNC officials won't say how much they are dedicating to voter protection, the Trump campaign is boasting of a $20 million legal fund that the president himself has cited as integral to his chances at a second term. Just last week, the campaign's legal team moved to intervene in a Democratic lawsuit in Arizona over signature requirements on ballots. A myriad of such legal wrangling is expected through the fall and even afterward.
Still, it's not all doom and gloom for Democrats. Even with the presidential primary resolved and the threat of coronavirus, voter turnout in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania only saw minor decreases from 2016, while participation in Georgia soared.
"We're watching the resiliency of the American voters," said Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org. "People in Georgia were still standing in line at 12:30 at night to cast their ballot."
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