Faced with sudden challenges due to the pandemic, along with circulating misinformation, voters are left confused ahead of the November election.
The challenges in 2020 may lead to the greatest voter suppression in American history. Over the years, bad actors aiming to manipulate voters have continuously spread disinformation, sowing seeds of doubt amongst the populous in order to destabilize our democracy. Although election officials and organizations have ramped up their education and precautions to the public, voters now face a new problem: COVID-19. From last minute rule changes to unprecedented stress on polling stations, major concerns have now sprouted that the pandemic has left voters more vulnerable than ever before.
My role at the University as a Suffolk Votes Ambassador is to educate students but also gather questions and concerns about the voting process. During my two weeks of conducting virtual meetings, the most commonly asked question was “doesn’t our vote not count anyway?” It was hard to hear that so many young adults felt pessimistic about voting. The truth is, their vote does count. But there is still a chance that they will face a few hurdles; some large enough to deter them from the polls if they don’t familiarize themselves with the right information.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already had specific impacts on elections. The greatest challenge to the public is that key voting information such as election dates, polling locations, and mail-in voting rules are suddenly subject to change. Voters may not learn about such changes in time to comply, or even more disastrous, may receive conflicting information and become dissuaded from voting.
Public concern about voting in person, especially from those who are immuno-compromised or have pre-existing health conditions, continues to grow. Many voters must now search for information about alternative methods of voting like early in-person and mail-in; two methods that require a greater amount of public education and awareness.
Election officials now have to accommodate new rules and requirements for social distancing and personal protective equipment. To make matters worse, many counties have already signaled that they are unable to secure funding for these added elements and are struggling to find poll workers.
Poor planning and a widespread lack of communication about how to properly complete the mail-in ballot request has already caused outrage in many states. Some voters are not familiar with mail-in voting, nor the multi-step process it entails. For example, Pennsylvania rejected about 372,000 requests for mail in votes because roughly 90% of them were duplicates. The cause of this was due to unclear instructions for those who voted in the June primaries when they were asked on their ballot if they would like a mail-in form for the November election. Many people had already requested a ballot, therefore unknowingly made a duplicate request.
Besides that, the state’s Supreme Court recently ruled that the ballot must be mailed in a “secrecy” envelope, and that the ballot could ultimately be rejected if a signature on the form does not match the one stored in the voter registration database.
These additional steps for casting a vote are sadly not confined to Pennsylvania. 318,000 of 33 million, or about 1% of absentee ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election, were rejected. And according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, roughly half of those rejections were due to a missing signature or a mismatch. Even though there are voting instructions on each state’s websites, the lengthy process is definitely a deterrent to potential voters this November.
Adding to the problems caused by the pandemic, deceptive practices seen in the 2016 elections make a strong comeback. Leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, operatives of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company tied to President Vladimir Putin, posed as Americans and posted messages and advertisements on a variety of social media networks.
Although companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat worked swiftly to remove these threats, they still struggle today to verify users and posts that fall under the category of manipulation and disinformation. Foreign efforts to unhinge the free and fair process of American elections have already been detected by government agencies.
The pandemic problems and external threats may be solvable, but what happens when internal government actors harbor malicious intent? For example, on Election Day in 2010, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich’s campaign manager targeted African American households with robo-calls claiming that Governor Martin O’Malley had already been reelected, implying that his supporters had no need to go out and vote.
It’s not surprising that laws and regulations have been passed by officials to make voting harder and more complicated are present. Seven states have strict photo ID laws, under which voters must present one of a limited set of forms of government-issued photo ID to cast a regular ballot. Voter ID laws have been estimated to reduce voter turnout by at least two percentage points, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
These consistent attempts to damage our election integrity perhaps show how fragile our country’s institutional safeguards are. So, what can we do? The best way to remedy these advances on eroding our democracy include changes and policy implementations for election officials and internet companies.
Election officials can develop plans and procedures to publicize corrective information. They can educate the public on where to find official sources of accurate information to build voters’ trust. Internet companies can follow the same recommendations aimed at election officials, but can also devote larger and more advanced teams to maintaining clear channels for reporting misinformation and taking down disinformation as rapidly as possible. And lastly, the government, social media networks and news stations should all work in tandem to ensure that clear and transparent information is easily accessible and visible to the public.
America is left with rampant disinformation, a lingering pandemic, and officials that seemingly have no clue how to lead the public in a disaster. Without intervention, policy planning, and implementation of advanced institutional guidelines, we may see the largest group of disenfranchised voters in history.
ACLU News & Commentary. (2020, February 3). Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/
The Election Administration and Voting Survey-2016 Comprehensive Report. (2016). Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/eac_assets/1/6/2016_EAVS_Comprehensive_Report.pdf
Parker, A., & Mudge, L. (2020, September 22). What Democracy Looks Like. Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/09/22/what-democracy-looks/protecting-voting-rights-us-during-covid-19-pandemic
Ryan McCarthy, D. (2020, October 16). Pennsylvania’s Rejection of 372,000 Ballot Applications Bewilders Voters and Strains Election Staff. Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.propublica.org/article/pennsylvanias-rejection-of-372-000-ballot-applications-bewilders-voters-and-strains-election-staff
Vanderwalker, I. (2020, September 02). Digital Disinformation and Vote Suppression. Retrieved October 16, 2020, from https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/digital-disinformation-and-vote-suppression