Pennsylvania’s primary elections on June 2 weren’t a disaster, but they didn’t go off without a hitch, either. Even before COVID-19, the state had been working to make it easier for residents to vote without leaving their homes. With the pandemic raging and the streets filled with protesters, an unprecedented number of people—nearly 2 million—chose to vote by mail. Those who didn’t found their options limited: due to a shortage of poll workers in Philadelphia, for example, the number of polling locations decreased by 77%.
Election officials were overwhelmed by the influx of mail ballots in a state where less than 5% had previously voted absentee. Under state law, they weren’t allowed to open those mail ballots until the polls had closed. It took several days for the closest races to have a winner declared, and the fact that more of the late-counted ballots were Democratic made some people suspicious about what was going on behind the scenes. Meanwhile, thousands of ballots arrived too late to be counted, disenfranchising the voters who’d cast them.
As the country scrambles to prepare for an unprecedented election in November, avoiding problems like Pennsylvania’s is a top priority. The last few months of primaries gave states the opportunity to test-run their election systems’ performance under the stress of a pandemic, and the results were mixed. Some primaries were relatively seamless; other states, like New York and Wisconsin, suffered high-profile meltdowns. But many, like Pennsylvania, were somewhere in between, according to a comprehensive new report by the bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crises. By fixing the problems that plagued the primaries, all these issues can be avoided in November, but it will take improved planning, increased funding, changes to state law and a massive voter-education effort, the report concludes.
“The nation has an opportunity to learn from its experiences during the primaries and improve for the general election,” states the report, which was provided exclusively to TIME in advance of its publication on Thursday. “In fact, it is imperative that we do so in order to ensure safe and secure participation in the election and maximize confidence in the outcome.”
In the U.S., election administration varies from state to state, county to county, municipality to municipality. The task force, a fair-elections advocacy group made up of more than 50 election-law, security and administration experts, hopes its recommendations can serve as a set of best practices for local officials scrambling to ensure that November goes as smoothly as possible. For the entire system to pivot so quickly in the midst of the pandemic is a tall order, but failure to do so puts nothing less than the integrity of the nation’s democratic system at risk.
The recommendations include expanding early voting to avoid crowding at polling locations on Election Day; making it easier to request, submit and count ballots cast by mail; ensuring polling places are staffed, supplied with protective equipment and conveniently located; and managing public expectations so prolonged vote counts don’t cause suspicion. Election officials should be prepared to use the National Guard if needed, the report states, but judiciously and never in uniform. They should expand curbside and drive-up voting, and work to invest in ballot-tracking methods that improve transparency.
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The task force was organized by Protect Democracy, a national nonprofit that seeks to preserve democratic norms and the rule of law. While Protect Democracy is generally anti-Trump, the task force spans the political spectrum, including Republicans such as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the Hoover Institution’s Lanhee Chen, as well as representatives of liberal-leaning institutions such as the Carter Center and Public Citizen. “The only electoral outcome this group advocates,” the task force’s website proclaims, “is that the election is free and fair.”
Though many of the recommendations seem like common sense, the primaries showed how far some states were from getting things right. New York was so ill-prepared to handle the volume of absentee ballots that some races weren’t called for over a month. In Wisconsin, where shortages of poll workers resulted in too-few voting sites, partisan disagreements prevented the state from addressing easily foreseeable issues.
The primary season, the report notes, was “characterized by a rapidly changing landscape of rules and processes as election officials grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.” States will have more time to prepare and plan for November—but with the presidency on the line, both the level of turnout and partisan passions will be far greater.
Though President Donald Trump is not mentioned explicitly in the report, the analysis includes a section on accepting the results of the general election. “No candidate should exploit potentially difficult circumstances in November in order to undermine confidence in the ultimate outcome of the general election,” the task force states, a not-so-subtle line aimed at the President, who has repeatedly sowed doubt about the integrity of elections and previously refused to commit to accepting the results. In the primaries, the report points out, candidates ultimately accepted the outcomes even when there were technical problems or long counting periods, such as in Kentucky’s Democratic Senate primary and Utah’s Republican gubernatorial primary.
Trump has expressed particular suspicion of voting by mail, a practice that reached unprecedented levels this year due to COVID-19. Absentee voting increased by 27 times in Rhode Island, for example, and 24 times in Maryland. A mail ballot was used by a majority of primary voters in at least 25 states, whereas in most states they accounted for less than 30% in 2018.
In addition to making sure mail ballots are widely accessible and properly counted, the task force urges election officials and the media to refer to them as “absentee ballots” to distinguish them from states that have universal vote-by-mail. Left unstated in the report is the potential for this verbiage to avoid partisan stigmatization.
Among the other recommendations the task force makes is to properly fund election administration, calling on state and federal governments to make more money available. While Congress allocated $400 million in March for that purpose through the CARES Act, state election officials have been looking for additional funds. Democrats in Congress have pushed for more election funding, but congressional Republicans broadly oppose it, making it one of the many sticking points that have stalled negotiations for further federal coronavirus relief legislation.
Above all, the report stresses, election administrators need to act fast. The window to fully implement and benefit from many of these recommendations is quickly closing. As the report put it: “State and local officials should be preparing now to conduct the general election in a way that ensures safe and secure participation by all eligible voters and maximizes confidence in the outcome.”
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