No matter what other impacts on our society the COVID-19 produces, one thing is for certain: The upcoming election will be the first of its kind when it comes to how the ballots are cast and counted.
The stimulus package, undaunted by the severity of both the health crisis and economic crisis facing the nation, provided $400 million intended to create an entirely new structure for elections. The intent is to maximize voting done by mail, thus minimizing in-person voting.
This $400 million surely will generate new capacities in the states. Whether or not it comes close to the amount needed to achieve the goals of legislation that would establish a universal vote by mail policy is up for debate. Experts from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School estimate it would take between $972 million and $1.4 billion to get the job done.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attempted to stick more than twice this amount, $4 billion, into the stimulus package. Wowser. The Kennedy Center, which the speaker wanted to give more than $320 million, just has to be disappointed the lady from San Francisco put this ahead of the benevolent betters having access to quality entertainment.
The $400 million is specifically directed to assist states that desire to increase their capacity to run an election by mail, expand early voting and online registration, as well as increase safety at in-person polling locations.
Nobody wants to neglect public health, and finding new and better ways to allow more citizens to cast an honest ballot should always be the goal. At the same time, we ought to be able to agree that counting the votes of dead people or non-existent people is a bad idea. Pretending there are no obstacles in effectively transitioning to a system emphasizing voting by mail in the name of “we have to do something” is unhelpful to assuring we have an honest election.
At first glance, mail-in ballots look to be a shiny object worth the chase, especially in our current situation. The obstacles, however, begin with state and county government not accustomed to making such drastic changes so quickly. Inconsistent state rules coupled with limited resources to purchase the basics of paper, envelopes and scanners lead one to believe reaching 200 million voters in November for the general election is an incredible challenge.
In addition, logistical issues and lower turnout among voters who move or lack a mailing address need to be addressed. For example, those living on Native American reservations or remote Alaskan villages simply do not have traditional mailing addresses and postal service is not reliable.
You do not have to be a conspiracy nut to recognize the opportunity for voter fraud increases exponentially when you reduce in-person voting. In 2005, a commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former President Jimmy Carter concluded that mail-in ballots “remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.” To be sure, technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 15 years, so better ways to detect fraud will be in place. Yet, that will not eliminate the vast opportunity for voter fraud from being present.
Here is what all political professionals cannot ignore: How we target voters, how we communicate with voters, and how we think about “turnout” in this new world is not an option. Those who cling to strategies and tactics rooted in a structure premised on the majority of votes being cast on Election Day at a polling place are doomed to failure. As the saying goes, you either adapt or you die.
One big problem for everyone is that to a large extent, we are flying blind. States such as Washington and Utah took several years to make a smooth transition from voting at polling places to voting by mail. It is probably time for all of us to do a deep dive into how campaigns are run in those two states. It is for sure if you are a campaign professional in Kentucky, where 2 percent of voters mailed in ballots in 2018, you are in a different place.
What we have to admit is that for the most part, we do not have the answers to what adjustments need to be made in our campaigns. At organizations such as the one I lead, you can bet the next several weeks will be devoted to first establishing what are the right questions to ask, followed by getting the answers. Then and only then will we or anyone else be ready to intelligently discuss what makes sense to do in this first of its kind election. It’s a new world.
• Jessica Curtis is executive director of GOPAC.