EPPN Election Series: Election Process Integrity

September 16, 2020

The 2020 presidential election, now less than two months away, has given rise to much anxiety and concern among voters about the integrity of the process. Many Americans worry that their mail-in ballot will not arrive in time, or that the process is rigged in favor of one party or the other. People are also concerned about their own health and safety of voting in-person during a worldwide pandemic, something the U.S. has not done in 100 years. Add on top of that concerns about foreign interference in America’s democratic system and you have a perfect recipe for widespread panic. 

While there are legitimate concerns about election integrity, the basic reality is that the United States, to a remarkable degree given our size and the diversity of our election systems, has election processes that are difficult to defraud or manipulate. In short, the election process itself is very likely to be straightforward and fair, up and down the ballot. That does not mean there won’t be issues relating to voting access or voter disenfranchisement, such as ensuring the formerly incarcerated have the right to do so where state laws allow, and voter suppression. We should also expect delays in results this year, due to the high number of mail-in ballots. We will address these issues in more detail in the coming weeks. But the American people should absolutely have confidence in the way this country’s elections are run. Equipping ourselves with an understanding of how the process works and the role we play will help us navigate the surrounding uncertainty with more confidence.

During a pandemic, how can I remain safe from COVID-19 as I vote? 

Voters are rightly concerned about maintaining their health and safety as they go to the polls this election season. Fortunately, there are many ways voters can ensure they remain socially distanced and avoid large crowds as they exercise their franchise. If you interact with others in the process of casting your vote, please wear a proper face mask to protect others. Poll workers across the country are being equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) for their own protection and the protection of the voting public. 

Vote by Mail 

Voting by mail is the easiest way to remain safe from COVID-19 while casting your vote. Many states allow voters to request a mail-in ballot for any reason. Indeed, according to New York Times analysis, more than 80 million Americans will cast their vote via mail, more than double the number that did so in 2016.  

The specific details for requesting a mail-in ballot vary by state, but you can visit FiveThirtyEight to access a handy guide to obtaining a mail-in ballot in your state. 

Mail-in voters should remember a couple of things:  

  • Once you receive your ballot, read and follow the instructions precisely. States have security protocols that will invalidate your ballot if you do not follow the instructions to the letter.  
  • If your state requires you to fill out your ballot using black ink, use black ink.  
  • If your state requires your signature to match the signature on your driver’s license, then sign your ballot as you signed your driver’s license.  
  • Some states have also rejected mail-in ballots because the voter sealed the envelope with tape. Err on the side of not taping your envelope. If you don’t want to lick the envelope, use a wet sponge to seal it instead. 

Some voters are also concerned about slowdowns with the U.S. Postal Service. This should not be an issue if you receive your ballot many weeks before Election Day and post it as quickly as possible. Most states also allow voters to track their ballot online to ensure it has been returned and accepted.  

However, if you do not want to chance sending your ballot through the post, you are able to hand-deliver it to your local election office. The name and address of your local election office should be printed on your ballot. (The precise name of the body that handles elections in your municipality will vary depending on your state. If you aren’t sure who handles elections in your municipality, please visit the website of your state election office to determine where to return your ballot.) Some communities will have designated drop-off boxes voters can use to return their ballots. Every state allows voters to return their ballots to the election office and hand it to a member of the election office staff. Regardless of the ballot return method you choose, it is imperative that you return your mail-in ballot as soon as possible before Election Day.  

In-Person Early Voting 

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow in-person early voting prior to Election Day. Nine states - Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina - currently do not offer pre-Election Day in-person voting options, so if you live in one of those states you do not have to read this section! 

The rules for early voting vary greatly from state to state. Some states open early voting many weeks before Election Day. Others don’t start early voting until as late as the weekend before Election Day. It is essential that voters investigate the details of early voting in their states. Some states, for instance, centralize early voting in a few locations, rather than opening the hundreds of polling places that will be available on Election Day itself. Equipping yourself with information about the early voting process in your state will help you decide if this option is for you. 

If you live in an early-voting state and are worried about long lines on Election Day itself, early voting is a great option to reduce the potential for crowds. We encourage you to visit the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures, where you can access a handy guide to early voting across the nation. 

In-Person Voting on Election Day 

If you don’t decide to vote early or by mail, the polls will be open at your local precinct on Election Day. Some states are also increasing the number of “voting centers” as locations to cast votes, register, drop off ballots, and get voter information. You may have heard about professional sports leagues coordinating the use of stadiums and coliseums for this effort.  

Precinct hours vary from state to state, but the window of opportunity to vote will be wide open on Tuesday, November 3rd. States have a wide variety of regulations regarding requirements such as voter I.D., registration deadlines, and the like. If you have government-issued photo identification of some kind (driver’s license, U.S. passport, etc...), it is probably best to bring it with you to the polls on Election Day. Some states allow forms of non-photo I.D. to be used as well. USA.gov has a handy guide you can consult to learn about all the requirements for voting in-person on Election Day. 

Election Integrity: Ensuring a Clean Election 

There are many politicians and pundits in our public discourse warning that the election may be open to fraud due to the large number of people expected to vote by mail. This concern is unfounded. Even though tens of millions of Americans will vote in November, the chances of any sort of large-scale voter fraud are minuscule. There are several reasons why. 

Voter Fraud Is Difficult to Pull Off 

Contrary to popular belief, U.S. election officials have instituted safeguards that make it exceedingly difficult to successfully execute fraudulent voting and exceedingly easy to detect any funny business. Such protective measures are multi-layered, ensuring the security of our election. For example, some have cast suspicion of nefarious actors printing fake ballots to send into voting precincts. Mail-in ballots are printed on special stock not commercially available, making it nearly impossible for malevolent actors to print fake ballots. Each ballot has a unique barcode that election officials will scan to ensure voters cannot vote more than once. Americans can rest easy: stringent safeguards already exist to ensure fraudsters cannot successfully sway elections. 

In-person Voter Fraud is Essentially Non-existent 

In the last decade and a half many states have implemented photo voter I.D. laws with the stated purpose of preventing voter impersonation fraud. While requiring voters to prove their identity when they show up to vote may have some merit, the problem of in-person voter fraud really doesn’t exist. This type of voter fraud is exceedingly rare because it is, frankly, a clunky, inefficient way to attempt to steal an election.  

Voter Fraud in General is Essentially Non-existent 

In fact, VERY FEW people ever attempt to steal elections in this country by circumnavigating election security measures. Attempting to steal elections is so difficult, the rewards so minimal, and the cost of getting caught so high that hardly anyone bothers. This inventory produced by the Brennan Center for Justice catalogues a wide array of academic studies that attest to the fact that voter fraud hardly ever happens. Indeed, many instances of what we would consider “voter fraud” are examples of voter *mistakes* - someone unintentionally voting in the wrong precinct, or a former felon mistakenly thinking they are permitted to vote when they aren’t, things of that nature.  

The Bottom Line: There are many good reasons to be confident in the U.S. election process.  

It is easy to get swept up in the confusion and disinformation that exists regarding America’s electoral processes, but voters should generally have faith in the system. Safeguards exist to both detect and deter electoral fraud. Most states have flexible voting options that will protect voters from the risk of COVID-19 infection. The important thing now is for you, the voter, to educate yourself about the voting options in your community, make a plan for how you are going to vote, and then get out there and vote. Democracy does not work without an informed citizenry. Now let’s go out to the polls and #VoteFaithfully. 

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