Despite the United States’ safeguards for election integrity and a peaceful transfer of power, real threats to the 2020 electoral process loom, including voter suppression and unfounded fears about mail-in voting and fraud, according to a panel hosted by The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University.
The Sept. 23 discussion titled “The 2020 U.S. Elections: A Test for Voting Rights, Free Speech, and Democracy” featured Deborah Turner, president of the League of Women Voters; Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice; and Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sanford Ungar, moderator of the event and director of The Free Speech Project, kicked off the conversation by asking about the significance of voter suppression in the United States.
Targeted voter suppression is increasing against voting blocs that emerged after the 2008 presidential election, according to Ho.
“It’s not an accident that law after law after law that has been passed in the last decade has disproportionately affected particular groups. It’s a design, and that’s what we’ve been dealing with since Barack Obama got elected, candidly,” Ho said. “They disproportionately affected exactly those segments of the electorate that emerged in 2008, targeting the forms of participation that they disproportionately used.”
Ho said this intensified voter suppression disproportionately affects people of color.
“We had the most diverse electorate in our nation’s history, over a quarter of the eligible electorate was voters of color, and young people turned out at a higher rate than they had since 1992,” Ho said. “And only when that happened did we see this backlash, this reaction, to constrict the right to vote, and it didn’t, I think, and this is key—it didn’t affect everyone equally.”
Propagating unfounded fears about voter fraud can also dampen voter turnout, according to Turner.
“Talking about voter fraud this close to an election actually can be dangerous because it discourages people. When you hear that phrase over and over and over and over again, you believe that it’s a situation, and therefore you become less likely to believe that your vote will count, you may be less likely to vote,” Turner said. “Really, voter fraud is not a significant problem anywhere in this country.”
Some voters hold similarly unfounded beliefs that mail-in voting can be fraudulent, according to Waldman. But despite widely publicized reports about financial threats to the United States Postal Service, Waldman said individual states have worked to ensure the mail system will function properly for the election.
“Of course, this year, with all the worries about the Postal Service and vote by mail and a gazillion lawsuits that are out there, there is a risk that people will get the impression that something is really wrong,” Waldman said. “I do think one of the things that we do want to make sure people know is the states have made a lot of progress since March in making it so that their elections can be held. People should know that, overwhelmingly, if they vote early, if they make a plan, they will be able to vote with confidence and have their vote counted.”
When the panelists were asked if they believed the United States Postal Service would be able to support the election, all three responded yes. Ho said the Postal Service handles large volumes of mail often.
“The postal office handles more packages on I think a single day around Christmastime than the number of ballots we can expect to be cast by mail, so they have the experience to do it,” Ho said.
Turner also said the media bears a responsibility not only to share challenges experienced by voters attempting to vote by mail, but also to report on its success historically.
“I think that a lot of people really think ‘oh my gosh, this is something new, and this is something different, and we’ve never done it before,’” Turner said. “We never had a really nice, clear discussion or presentation of how many people across the country have voted by mail for years and years and years. And I keep waiting for that to be the leading story somewhere.”
The media will play an especially important role on election night, when mail-in votes will still not be tallied completely. Democrats will likely request more absentee ballots than Republicans, according to Ho.
“There is a partisan skew in terms of who has been requesting absentee ballots that I think reflects the partisanization of concerns about the virus,” Ho said.
Waldman said the media must prepare the public in advance for the possibility election results will take time to tally.
“The key there is how we, all of us and the media and others, react to what we can expect. Will the television networks hype election night like they do normally, expecting a big reveal at 11 o’clock at night when the polls close on the West Coast?” Waldman said. “Or will they say ‘you know, folks, the election: that’s next week, don’t expect to know on Tuesday. Half the people are voting by mail, it’s going to take a few days to count, and we are going to let you know on Thursday or Friday who won.’”
Ho said if the media does not communicate the real timeline of vote counting, in swing states especially, then President Trump may attempt to delegitimize absentee ballots yet to be counted.
“And given how the president has been delegitimizing votes cast by mail and absentee ballots, saying that they’re fraudulent, there is a real concern that he will say that all those ballots that haven’t been counted, those are fraudulent, I’m ahead, I’m the winner, and that’s the end of the election,” Ho said.
Despite these concerns, Waldman said significant parts of the U.S. electoral process guarantee rule of law and said in the end, it is unlikely the president will be able to delegitimize the election.
“Let’s hope it’s more like Y2K, where everyone gets ready, and then things, in the end, are okay,” Waldman said. “The best way to negate these science-fiction, dystopian scenarios is enough people voting. Then it’ll be clear one way or another who won.”