November 3rd, 2020. That is the date that seems to be marked on calendars worldwide. Americans are anxiously waiting for this day as it slowly creeps closer—constantly wondering what is going to happen, are the theoretical polls going to come to life or be debunked, will this play out like the 2016 campaign? It also seems like the world is holding their breath as they wait for November 4th to know who the Commander in Chief will be. Although November 3rd is the official United States election day, millions of Americans across the country—and those living abroad—have already casted their votes for either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
In the past, election day is seen as an event. Throughout the country, Americans run to the polls during their lunch breaks, before or after work, receive their I Voted sticker, and march home with a confident or distressed outlook towards the future. Although this ritual will likely still be the reality for millions of people, Americans have already started casting their votes.
Millions of ballots are constantly being collected, casted, or are in the process of being mailed—one month before the official election date. Historically speaking, it is not uncommon to receive mail in votes. In 2016, roughly four million voters sent their absentee and mail-in ballots. However, with the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, even more Americans are now opting out of the traditional polling place and relying on the postal service.
As of now, ballot requests have climbed sharply compared to previous election cycles. In 2016, it is estimated that one in four voters’ casted mail-in or absentee ballots, but it can be assumed that this ratio will be higher in 2020. The North Carolina State Board of Elections tweeted that they had received requests for 1,193,857 mail-in ballots, which is nine times the number of requests they had in the 2016 election. Due to the pandemic, states like California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington have adopted Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Hawaii’s method of voting, which is to automatically send registered voters mail-in ballots without being requested or solicited.
Clearly, mail-in voting is not something new to the electoral process in the United States. In fact, many arguments in favor of this voting option stem from the idea that the likelihood of mail-ballot fraud seems to be rare in the United States. Another pro is the fact that people are looking for ways to safely maneuver through this election and prevent having to attend physical locations that might be crowded. A Stanford University study also shows that voting turn-out does increase (although by a merely 2%). The same study found that there is no significant evidence to believe that mail-in voting applies to a certain party affiliation, racial, age, or economic group. And of course, this format of voting does reduce the costs of recruiting poll workers and finding suitable locations.
With all this in mind, it is important to consider the defects in mail-in voting. First, although those in favor have agreed that fraud is rare, it is still much more likely to be initiated when there are no poll watchers. The leading to Election Day tends to have many new developments that can stem from media coverage, the Presidential debates, etc. which can be missed opportunities if your ballot has already been sent. Most importantly, ballots are rejected frequently for reasons that can range from timing to clerical issues. It is calculated that in 2016, about 4% of mailed ballots were simply not counted.
Ballots are easily disqualified for common reasons that many people may not know about. Each state has different rules regarding how they count votes, which is why it is vital to prepare the cast properly. The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2016 about 1% of votes that were counted were rejected. Some common issues where ballots are excluded include being received after the deadline, voters not signing certain elements of the ballot, and even by applying a signature that does not match state records.
Regarding the signatures, there are certain states (35 out of the 50) that guarantee to send the ballots back in order to resolve the signature and ID errors. However, University of Florida political-science professor Daniel Smith comments that individuals who have never voted or are first time voters with mail-in ballots, are much more likely to make mistakes. Mr. Smith also found that rejections disproportionately affect younger, inexperienced voters and racial minorities—who tend to lean more Democratic. This poses the issue that if the ballot is returned to the voter, will it arrive on time before November 3rd in order to be counted towards the presidential election?
Democrats are pushing to change certain ballot regulations that will decrease the likelihood of rejections. This includes the concept of counting votes that are postmarked by Election Day even if they arrive a few days after November 3rd. Whereas Republicans oppose the idea of counting ballots that are gathered after Election Day. Regardless, the democratic process is being endangered through the delays that can take place. For example, the 2020 primaries were delayed because additional time was needed to count ballots.
If this is the case on a national level, it is very likely that the United States will not know who their new president is for a few days. In the 2000 election cycle, Florida had to recount their votes which took more than a month to resolve and still people were outraged by the results. Inevitably, the Supreme Court had to determine the findings of the election because of how unsure and inaccurate the reporting was in Florida. In which case, applying what happened to Florida to the entire nation of the United States can be an utter catastrophe.
Many states have adjusted their ballot counting to apply to this election because of Corona. Currently in the state of Georgia—a Republican majority state—a federal judge ordered that ballots have to be accepted until November 6th but this ruling is pending in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Similarly, a federal judge from Wisconsin stated that ballots may be flooding in until November 9th as long as they are postmarked for the election day. Most importantly, South Carolina has reinstated the Absentee-Ballot Witness Rule, which states that someone must be present while you fill your absentee ballot in order to verify individuals and prevent fraud. However, before passing this rule the state of South Carolina had already sent more than 150,000 absentee ballots with 7,891 being returned as of October 1. Now they must send these ballots back so that voters can fill it out again with a witness present.
In other states such as Arizona, the Supreme Court is reviewing the legality of its voting rules. In 2016, Arizona implemented a law that allowed “get-out-the-vote” operatives to knock on people’s doors to collect and submit their ballots. This practice is known as “ballot-harvesting” and the Democratic House passed a bill earlier in June that mandates ballot-harvesting nationwide. The concept of harvesting ballots is to have paid activists canvass neighborhoods to collect absentee votes. Although using a third party ballot collection is legal, the idea that people wearing Trump hats or Biden shirts can knock on doors and skew votes is clearly a concern to be had.
In fact, to illustrate the dangers of ballot-harvesting, one only needs to look at what happened in 2017 in Florida’s Palm Beach local elections. Two local candidates canvassed neighborhoods where the majority of people were absentee voters. Reports find that women felt “forced” to vote for a certain candidate and there was a case of a blind man who said that the candidate filled out his ballot for him. Another example is that of Orange County in California where ballot harvesting was passed in legislature in 2016. Orange County has been frequently known as a stronghold for Republican voters in the dominantly Democratic state, but in 2018 it is estimated that 250,000 harvested votes were collected and dropped off on Election Day turning the once historically red county into blue.
It would be naïve to assume that ballot-harvesting will not take place in swing states or in nursing homes where people are more likely to be swayed. Despite the implication from Democrats saying that it is almost completely fool proof and inevitably aids those who do not know how to work the system. In the state of Wisconsin—where Donald Trump won in 2016 only by a pitiful 22,748 votes—Commissioner Dean Knudson expressed his displeasure and fear with ballot-harvesting by stating, “If you think there’s no ballot harvesting in Wisconsin, you buckle up, because there most definitely will be.”
Despite the precautions and dangers, the clear message that needs to be conveyed is that the world is not going to know who the president is November 3rd. Tensions have been continuously increasing amongst Americans. In fact, it is likely that more poll watchers are going to be recruited to prevent any issues that may transpire. Joe Biden even touched upon the subject during the first presidential debate of having more poll watchers on site.It should also be noted that tensions typically rise in the month leading up to the elections, but due to the current political climate, it is clearly much more aggressive than normal. Especially because of the lackluster first presidential debate.
When asked about mail-in voting in the debate, there were clear bipartisan opinions between Trump and Biden. Biden agreed to accept the outcome of the mail-in votes whereas Trump argued the likelihood that voting will lead to fraud. Democrats clearly supported Biden’s stance that this route is safe and secure whereas Republicans associated with Trump’s concerns over unsolicited ballots.
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer if Trump or Biden will accept the results—especially because they will likely be finalized after the official election day. Trump continues to adamantly oppose mail-in voting and has stated that the transition of power may not go smoothly if he sees there is fraud in the ballots. As concerning as Trump’s statements are, Hillary Clinton has also come forward telling Joe Biden he should not concede the election “under any circumstance.”
The tensions rising during the 2020 elections have clearly not lightened. Even after election day, when everyone can take a breath of fresh air, it is unlikely to last long. The 2000 election showcased the disastrous results of voting difficulties and fraud. Although it mainly applied to the state of Florida, it clearly reflects the pressure that is currently mounting on the 2020 elections.
Realistically, the most accurate form of voting is by attending the ballot box— due to the high likelihood of reliability and validity. However, understandably, this poses quite an issue during the pandemic. Especially because the United States continues to have hundreds of thousands of cases of coronavirus. For people trying to keep safe by social distancing and hardly leaving the house, it is quite understandable to solicit a ballot. However, if you are willing to go out to a bar or restaurant, then you are more than capable of going to the polls to vote for America’s future.
It seems that no matter what the results of the election are, there is going to be quite an uproar. Neither the Democrats or Republicans are going to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, and it is possible that due to ballots being counted afterward, that the ‘official’ result can change. For people who are still deciding who to vote for—the deadline is approaching whether you intend to vote physically or through the mail.