Perhaps never before in American history has the act of voting been so closely scrutinized before a presidential election. A pandemic, partisan attacks on voting rights and a White House incumbent falsely warning of fraud have put extraordinary pressure on the democratic process.
The Times’s Politics editor, Patrick Healy, spoke with four reporters who are covering voting and voters: Nick Corasaniti, Reid J. Epstein, Astead W. Herndon and Stephanie Saul. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
PATRICK HEALY Early voting is underway in Michigan, Virginia and other states, and tens of millions of absentee ballots are going out. What stands out to you about voting so far?
NICK CORASANITI We just saw how high the interest is in this election: long lines in major counties in Virginia on the first two days of early voting. But we also saw the potential for it to turn ugly: There was a group of Trump supporters who walked over to a polling location in Fairfax, Va., and began chanting at voters as they waited in line. Some felt intimidated.
STEPHANIE SAUL Nick got an interesting email from a voter who said she broke into tears.
REID J. EPSTEIN While there were long lines in some places, it was fast and easy to vote at the vast majority of locations. Virginia voters in Arlington and Alexandria reported getting in and out in less than 10 minutes.
CORASANITI The absentee ballot request numbers in a lot of states are really large. Wisconsin already has 1.1 million absentee ballot requests.
EPSTEIN Looking at turnout, take Delaware’s primary this month. Turnout for its Senate primary (Democratic and Republican contests combined) was up 44 percent over 2018, even though neither year was particularly competitive.
ASTEAD W. HERNDON Michigan’s primary turnout was up 13 percent.
HEALY Do we have any evidence about which side is more energized, Trump voters or Biden voters?
EPSTEIN By all accounts far more Democrats have requested absentee ballots than have Republicans.
CORASANITI An analysis by Catawba College in North Carolina conducted in late August found that registered Democrats had requested 53 percent of the absentee ballots in that state, while only 15 percent of requests had come from Republican voters.
SAUL It’s hard to know whether the Republicans will catch up or not, or if they just want to vote at polls.
HEALY So what would an orderly election look like this fall?
HERNDON There will need to be huge amounts of voter education about what’s new: mail-in and absentee rules, changed polling locations, poll worker shortages. Many of those changes are because of the virus. But I also think it’s about trust — has it been communicated to voters that the system is working in the interest of all Americans? Do they believe it? That goes a long way to maintaining order in the run-up to Election Day and its aftermath.
CORASANITI Trust is paramount. One major effort a lot of cities have been undertaking is to still make Election Day as normal as possible. That means no consolidation of polling locations, backed by a huge poll worker recruitment effort.
SAUL As for election night, there’s a lot of agreement that we won’t know the winner. Several states won’t be finished counting that night because of the large number of mail-in ballots expected.
What will election night be like?
HEALY Which big states are most likely to have full results on election night?
EPSTEIN Florida will be first. Florida and Arizona have a large percentage of their vote coming in by mail, and they are allowed to count the mailed-in ballots ahead of Election Day and release the results shortly after the polls close.
SAUL Ohio also has the ability to count fairly quickly.
HEALY What about Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — the three states that decided the 2016 election?
CORASANITI Those three will probably be the last major states we’ll get full results from.
SAUL About half the counties in Pennsylvania were still counting votes a week after its primary.
EPSTEIN Wisconsin could be a while. The elections there are run by municipalities, not counties. In most of these places, the entire election staff is one village or town clerk, who suddenly has the job of processing a swamp of absentee ballots instead of just reading the numbers off voting machines. This will take much longer than normal.
CORASANITI Currently, four critical swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire — don’t allow their election officials to begin processing millions of absentee votes until Election Day. There is both legislation and litigation in those four states seeking to change those laws. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court just said officials could accept ballots postmarked by Election Day as late as the following Friday. And it’s possible Michigan and Wisconsin end up accepting ballots that are postmarked by Election Day a few days later as well, depending on how federal courts rule in pending litigation.
HEALY Nick, what are the chances that any of those four states will change their rules and count the votes before Election Day?
CORASANITI Both Republicans and Democrats in the Pennsylvania legislature are confident that they will be able to change the law regarding vote processing. The question is: Will it be closer to the nearly three weeks before Election Day that the Democrats want, or three days before, which is the Republican proposal? Michigan and Wisconsin are more up in the air, because the only way they will be able to change the rules is through pending litigation.
HEALY Many election officials are working hard to make for an orderly and safe vote, but there are still challenges. What do experts see as worst-case scenarios for voting and the election?
EPSTEIN For voters, the worst case would look something like what happened in Georgia for its primary in June. There you had overburdened elections officials trying to conduct a mail-in and an in-person election at the same time, without sufficient resources to do either. The result was an absentee ballot system that left tens of thousands of voters without the ballots they’d requested, and hourslong lines at Election Day polling places that were short poll workers across the state.
CORASANITI There is also a Democratic concern that they call the “red mirage.” Which is that President Trump is winning the returns as of Election Day, declares victory pre-emptively and prematurely, but when all the absentee ballots are counted, Joe Biden wins, which would probably lead to some pretty contentious political bickering.
Election 2020 ›
Understand Mail-In Voting
- How to Vote: Because of the pandemic, many voting rules have changed this year, making it harder than usual to figure out how to cast your ballot. Here is some help to make sure your vote is counted.
- Rise in Mail Voting: About three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election — the most in U.S. history. Roughly 80 million mail ballots may flood election offices, more than double what was returned in 2016.
- Surge in Paper Mail: The long-troubled Postal Service may be overwhelmed by the task of delivering tens of millions more votes cast by mail.
- How to Count Ballots? There may be various battles over how to count ballots. Should mailed ballots be counted if they are received by Election Day or simply postmarked by Election Day? Does a ballot count if the post office does not postmark it at all?
- Do You Still Have Time?: Voters in 35 states can request ballots so close to Election Day that it may not be feasible for their ballots to be mailed to them and sent back to election officials in time to be counted. Here’s a list of state’s where it’s risky to procrastinate.
- A Long Road to Election Day: It is estimated that party organizations, campaigns and interest groups across the county have already filed 160 lawsuits trying to shape the rules of the election.
The 2020 variations on Florida’s hanging chads
SAUL The most likely worst-case scenario is that the election is so close in one or two states that it comes down to ballot challenges, which will mostly focus on mail ballots and whether signatures match or whether they can be contested on some other grounds. I could see a Florida “hanging chad”-type scenario like what occurred in 2000, but instead focusing on challenges to mail ballots.
CORASANITI Agree with Stephanie. Something along the lines of Florida in 2000, where instead of a hanging chad we have signature matching or privacy envelopes being debated.
SAUL Of course that ended up in the Supreme Court.
EPSTEIN Signature matching is such a worrisome issue, especially for Democrats, that the city clerk in Madison, Wis., tweeted a reminder that Wisconsin does not have a signature-matching requirement. Apparently voters there were calling in asking to see what their autograph on file looked like.
SAUL What if someone’s mail ballot is torn? Does that mean it doesn’t count? These are all questions that election lawyers could litigate. Also, erasures are a no-no on mail ballots, but people don’t realize that.
CORASANITI There could be debates on whether the ovals on ballots are filled out properly. Whether a voter properly sealed the privacy envelope. Whether the postmark is illegible. Or if it arrives a day later without a postmark at all.
SAUL Georgia just adopted a policy that the ovals on mail ballots have to be 20 percent filled in to count without further scrutiny.
HEALY What are you thinking about already when it comes to election night?
HERNDON Expectations-setting is so important. Those tipping-point states could take a long time to count votes. I think a misconception in the election will be about the counting process. When will we know states are being called — and on what timeline? How are those ballots reported, and what models can we have to project winners?
EPSTEIN Astead is right on this — so much of the Election Day narrative will be set by how the nation’s major news outlets cover a slow-counting election process. Because we expect that Trump will inject some misdirection into the news cycle, how the television networks and social media companies process that coverage will have significant influence in how Americans view the integrity of the results.
SAUL Astead, what do you think the news media should be doing on the “expectation-setting” front?
HERNDON I think it’s things like this chat! Or I think about the explainer Nate Cohn did before Iowa caucuses about how The Times would declare a winner with all the different measures. I think local officials and the news media play a huge role. As much as voters know before Election Day about what to expect and what the timelines are, they’re in for the better, so things won’t seem like a surprise or an effort at manipulation by the political parties or the media.
Of course, all of that can go out the window with a lawsuit or an Election Day catastrophe that puts things into doubt. Or misinformation coming from an elected official, as we’ve sometimes seen from the president.
HEALY I’ve been wondering if Democrats might swing back to voting in person — either in early voting or on Election Day — in bigger numbers than we expected. What do we know or think about that?
EPSTEIN What we saw last weekend when early voting started in Virginia suggested that there is a pent-up desire among a lot of people to vote as soon as they can. Democrats especially have been waiting for nearly four years to vote against Trump.
HERNDON During the peak of the Postal Service drama, there was real concern that Trump had pushed the post office to serve his political aims, but that seems to have subsided — though it has not gone away. I expect to see real determination from Democrats to vote in person, much as I saw in Wisconsin in the early stages of the pandemic.
What to know about your vote
HEALY Are you more likely to have your vote counted if you vote in person than if you vote by mail? Is that knowable?
SAUL Studies have shown that votes cast by mail are slightly more likely to be rejected. When you cast a vote at the polling place and there’s a problem with it, the scanner will reject it and you have a chance to fix it. If you’re not there, you might not have a chance to fix it. That’s one reason.
EPSTEIN There is some, albeit small, risk in returning an absentee ballot through the mail. Many states are seeking to mitigate that risk by arranging for drop boxes for voters to deposit their ballots without sending them through the mail. That is how the vast majority of voters in Colorado and Washington return their ballots.
CORASANITI There are, of course, problems that can plague in-person voting, too. Long lines can push people who have uncompromising work schedules away, for example.
HEALY What’s the best thing to do to ensure that your vote is counted?
CORASANITI Make a plan and start the process early! If you want to vote in person, try going to an early voting location. If you want to vote by mail, request a ballot now. And if you want to vote on Election Day, have a flexible schedule that day. There could be lines or consolidated locations that force you to relocate or drive farther away.
HEALY Of the battleground states, are there ones where it is hardest to vote? Where there’s the least access to early voting? The most complications in terms of getting an absentee ballot?
EPSTEIN There are different ways that it can be difficult. Wisconsin requires people who request absentee ballots to upload an image of a photo ID to a website, and then a witness must sign the completed ballot.
SAUL For some people, uploading an image would be a deal breaker. A lot of people need help with that.
CORASANITI In April, a lot of Wisconsin voters thought they had to upload an image of themselves, not of their ID. So state election officials have a lot of selfies in a folder somewhere.
EPSTEIN And Ohio, as Nick has written about, has limited drop boxes for absentee ballots to just one per county — a significant disadvantage for voters who live in large urban counties.
HEALY When this conversation is published, we’ll have less than six weeks until Election Day. What are you most intent on keeping an eye on through Nov. 3?
SAUL I think it’s going to be interesting to monitor absentee ballot rejection rates. There’s some early data coming out suggesting that some states are rejecting young people and people of color at a higher rate than other voters.
CORASANITI I’m both most worried about and most intent on keeping an eye on all the pending litigation and attempts to challenge how the election will play out in November. We’re getting new decisions daily, but it’s rarely the end of the story.
EPSTEIN Just how many people are going to vote in 2020 is a huge question that will have ramifications for contests up and down the ballot. By all accounts, turnout will be through the roof. We haven’t seen 60 percent of voting-age Americans participate in a presidential election since 1968. Democrats keep saying that if more people vote, they will win. Republicans keep doing whatever they can to make voting harder. This election may show us which theory is the winning one.
SAUL I would also like to watch early voting sites. I’m wondering if we’ll see any more gatherings of Trump supporters like the recent one in Fairfax, Va. And I’ll also be watching to see what the turnout is at early voting locations.
HERNDON I want to see places where Democrats and Republicans work together. There were some real success stories in the primary — Kentucky comes to mind — where bipartisan deals were struck to make voting more accessible. It requires some political risk, and for Republicans it may mean crossing the president.
HEALY What are the best ways for people to vote safely?
CORASANITI If voting by mail, make sure to get your ballot back with enough time — a minimum of seven days before election. If voting in person, try early voting to avoid a line, and if voting on Election Day, wear a mask.
HERNDON I think universal advice is to research early and follow through.
SAUL I personally plan to vote by mail this year, mostly because I think I’ll be busy on Election Day. It’s important to read the mail ballot carefully and follow the instructions. Fill in the ovals or squares. In other words — no check marks or X marks within the ovals or squares. Don’t make stray marks on the ballots. On one uncounted ballot in Georgia, the voter placed hearts by preferred candidates. Don’t make erasures.
Elections officials have done a lot to make polling places safe. They are requiring voters to spread out, placing voting machines farther apart, and supplying hand sanitizer and, in some cases, souvenir one-use pens.