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How do you run a clean, fair election during a pandemic? There are ways.

photo of a single voting booth
REUTERS/Darren Hauck

The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School/Center for the Study of Policy and Governance put on an excellent virtual seminar Thursday about the upcoming election and the various practical issues of holding such an election during a pandemic. There are a lot of things that can be done to make it easier for Americans to vote without risking catching or spreading the virus. 

I don’t believe Donald Trump’s name was mentioned during the event. But he played (to borrow a notion about a dog that didn’t bark from “Silver Blaze,” an Arthur Conan Doyle story) a role from the silence.

Maybe Trump’s name was mentioned and I didn’t get it in my notes as I watched the seminar live online but, to say the least, it was not mentioned that Trump has opposed many of the ways under consideration in many states for allowing voters to vote without exposing themselves to crowds on Election Day because, as he explicitly stated, he believes that if it is made safer and easier to vote by increasing the use of absentee balloting and other measures, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

He shouldn’t have said that. He shouldn’t have thought it, because it’s evil to value lower voter participation. But it’s also stupid to say it out loud so that jerks like me can bring it up as the reason Trump specifically (and, to some extent, Republicans generally) want to keep voter participation rates down.

Anyway, the two paragraphs above are just me venting spleen against a president who doesn’t much care about democracy. None of that was discussed yesterday. The discussion was nonpartisan, non-Trumpified, and consisted of smart experts on how to run a clear, fair election talking about the challenges of doing so during a pandemic. They seemed to be reporting from a universe far away where everyone agrees that the goal is to make sure everyone who is entitled to a vote gets to cast one. And, thanks to modern laws and technologies, there are a lot more ways to do so.

It was mentioned that one poll found that 66 percent of Americans said they would be uncomfortable going to a public polling place to vote this Year of COVID. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared by video from Washington to promote a federal bill to expand the use of early voting and voting by mail, both of which would reduce voters’ exposure to crowds. (Fun historical fact: Klobuchar mentioned that absentee voting dates back to the Civil War and was adopted so troops fighting far from home to save the Union wouldn’t lose their ability to participate in their democracy.)

Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who spoke after Klobuchar, said that, unfortunately, there is no hope of bipartisanship on many of these issues, noting that Klobuchar has long sponsored bills to make voting easier and only one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, has ever joined one of them. Klobuchar’s current bill, referred to above, has 36 co-sponsors, zero Republicans. Under those circumstances and considering that Republicans control the Senate, he rated the bill “not likely to pass.”

The usual excuse for opposing measures to make voting easier is that it encourages fraud. The other experts who spoke yesterday at the U of M forum, said the number of fraud cases in U.S. elections is minimal. One of the panelists gave downright poignant examples of the few cases of actual fraud she has seen, mentioning a woman whose husband filled out an absentee ballot, but died before Election Day, and his widow sent it in anyway, as a way to honor him. In another case, a person suffering from dementia mailed in an absentee ballot but forgot he had done so, and went to the polling place and voted again. I would claim that instances like these are not numerous, but I pass them along because I found them both touching.

Five states, by the way, and not all solid-blue states, have gone to all voting by mail: Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and California.

In considering state laws on voting, said Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures, who works on such laws, there are three things everyone would like elections to be: fast, cheap and accurate. But it turns out you can usually achieve only two of the three, and everyone (she said) agrees that accuracy should be No. 1. Fast is nice, but expensive, and state legislatures have to worry about what these things cost, so, she advised: “Get ready for not knowing who won on Election night” in November.


Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/29/2020 - 09:42 am.

    I’m not sure what generation we’re in at the moment (X? Y? Z? Some Klingon character that I, at least, can’t decipher?), but those of us who are from generations much, much earlier in the alphabet remember numerous election nights when we went to bed at whatever hour knowing that candidate “R” had so many votes, and this much of a percentage, while candidate “D” had this many votes, and a different percentage of the total, and sometimes, the result wasn’t known until days (note the plural) later.

    Somehow, we survived, and often with only an hour’s worth of black-and-white TV analysis, and even that was generally focused on the national races. Local news programs – and the daily paper – filled in the blanks for local and regional races. Who knows? What seemed quaint and very, very old-fashioned in January of this year might be fashionable again in November.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/29/2020 - 09:56 am.

    I am fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood where I have never spent more than 10 minutes from parking to driving away from our polling place.

    I did have one instance where travel required I be away on election day. I received my mail in ballot and, must say, that for the first and only time in my now near 50 year history of voting I knew the positions of every candidate I applied a mark to and of those I did not. Soil & Water Commissioner: Found my candidate. Obscure judge: Found my candidate.

    Sat down with my ballot and the Google machine and made the most informed choices I have ever made.

    So there’s that….

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/29/2020 - 11:13 am.

    Mr. Black – how confident are you that the voter registration list are accurate?

    Who will receive ballots in the mail?

    “Anyway, the two paragraphs above are just me venting spleen against a president who doesn’t much care about democracy.” Is questioning the method of voting not caring about democracy?

    Are illegitimate votes cast an attack on our democracy?

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 05/29/2020 - 11:45 am.

      I believe the same voter lists are used, whether we vote in person or absentee (i.e. by mail).

      Is voter suppression an attack on our democracy?

      More importantly; which side should we err on? Is it better to ensure only valid ballots are cast, at the expense of blocking legitimate votes? Or is it better to ensure all valid voters who want to vote can, but possibly including invalid votes?

      Ideally, of course, our democracy would maximize voter participation and have zero fraud. If we accept that as a challenging and maybe unattainable goal, the next question is which aspects we value most.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/29/2020 - 12:26 pm.

      Many absentee ballots are sent out that do not end up being used — this is not fraud.
      The number of cases in which it has been proved that someone has knowingly cast a fraudulent mail ballot is vanishingly small — no larger than the number of fraudulent ballots cast live.
      States and nations which have used mail ballots exclusively have not seen excessive fraud.
      The real fraud is voter suppression.
      As Trump has said, his election depends on it.

    • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 05/29/2020 - 12:34 pm.

      The pious ones continue to believe or gin up fears of voter fraud as attacks on our democracy without producing any reputable study that it is an actual problem. The fears, if they are actually believed, are based on isolated instances or are anecdotal.

      Yet they don’t bat an eye at voter suppresion whether it is making sure voting is a much harder and much longer process for poor people or simply enacting laws that purge voters on the flimsiest pretences. There are the real attacks on our democracy. Fact of the matter is, for many on the right, the vote of a poor person or a minority shouldn’t count as much as their vote. For all the homage paid to our founding fathers, one doesn’t have to look very hard to find evidence that they wanted the votes of wealthier, white males to decide who would actually run the country.

  4. Submitted by Alan Nilsson on 05/29/2020 - 11:48 am.

    The President knows that voter fraud exists. He himself uses absentee ballots. Another step in avoiding exposure. Trump was born to Fred and Mary Trump while they were on their way to view grandfather Frederick Trump’s former bordello in Alaska. President Trump was actually born in a remote cabin in CANADA’s Northwest Territory. His birth was fraudulently registered in the borough of Queens!!!

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/29/2020 - 12:31 pm.

      But from Snopes:
      “In summation, Donald Trump’s grandfather Frederick Trump was a German immigrant who made his fortune by opening several restaurants and hotels in Seattle and British Columbia during the Yukon Gold Rush. While some of these hotels may have been used for prostitution, gambling, or other seedy activities common on the trail, it is incorrect to say that Trump built his fortune on illegal activities.”

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/29/2020 - 01:52 pm.

        What you say is true, although there is a sweet irony in a spurious birther scandal about Trump.

        “While some of these hotels may have been used for prostitution, gambling, or other seedy activities common on the trail, it is incorrect to say that Trump built his fortune on illegal activities.”

        On the other hand, his grandson managed to piss away a lot of that fortune while engaging in illegal activities (viz. housing discrimination).

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/31/2020 - 11:34 am.

          and money laundering (see Deutschebank).
          The real estate games were small change by the time that DJT took over.

  5. Submitted by Gene Hodel on 06/02/2020 - 06:36 pm.

    Mr. Black,
    Voting Only by mail is not good for our country or anywhere else.
    We already have early voting by mail when requested by the voter or the voter can go to the Anoka County office to vote. They don’t even have to have an excuse, as was required by absentee voting which now has been replaced with early voting. Every single person in the county can vote early. Voters can also have what is called an agent to bring them a ballot and then the agent takes the ballot back to the County election office. Also voters in nursing homes are visited by election officials so they can vote where they live. On top of all these options a voter can ask a relative or friend to drive them to the polling locations. All these options give everyone an opportunity to vote.
    A law requiring all mail- in voting is another opportunity for fraud. It makes no difference if it is one vote or a thousand.
    Personally I would like to see a process to vote like they do in some other countries. This is where the voter puts their thumb in purple ink. That would greatly decrease the odds of fraud. However most of those citizens on the left prefer a law to allow mail-in votes and no polling place. The left are usually the ones that want to change the results of an election in their favor through a mail-in process. Keep in mind how close many of the recent elections were and what a little bit effort takes to change the results.
    It saddens me to know that so many citizens have sacrificed so much from the beginning of our nation and through all the wars that we still have citizens that don’t want to make the small honest effort to go to their polling place to vote in person. Voting in person helps to ensure fair voting. This should be considered a blessing, and a duty to perform.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/03/2020 - 06:44 am.

    It is impossible to conduct perfect elections. It’s impossible to conduct elections where every single vote is validly cast.. As with much else in life, we do the best we can.

    The effect, and what may be worse, the intent of focusing the possibilities of error and fraud, is to undermine our confidence in elections. It is an attack on the process of democracy, and on democracy itself.

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