Socially distanced lines, poll workers in face shields, ballots piling up in elections offices.
Election Day this fall is going to be completely unrecognizable from anything we have seen before. The very act of voting will change for millions of people because of the coronavirus. The tidy and traditional expectation that you can stay up past midnight — or wake up the next morning — and know who the next president will be is uncertain. And all of this will happen as the sitting president intentionally confuses people into thinking there is widespread, and unfounded, voter fraud.
“We live in a time where there is an incredible amount of concern rising to the level of fear over the legitimacy and the accuracy of the vote-counting process in this country,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist and political science professor at the University of Southern California.
Pair that with the nation’s inability to contain the coronavirus, the renewed reckoning over systemic racism, and millions of people out of work amid a weak economy, and “it’s just a precarious time to be running an election as significant as this one is,” Sragow said.
Fearing the virus might spread at polling locations, local and state officials across the country have changed how elections are administered to make it easier for people to vote from home — infuriating President Donald Trump, who admitted last week that he withheld funding from the US Postal Service to make it harder for states to expand voting by mail.
The massive increase in absentee or mail-in voting — and litigation over the election law changes that have made remote voting more accessible — could make it more difficult to call races on election night and create a lot of confusion and uncertainty about the outcome.
Every day brings new, incremental developments. It’s a lot to keep track of. Below, BuzzFeed News will lay out some of the big-picture issues and how they might change how we process what happens after the polls open on Nov. 3.
“Obviously COVID-19 has changed every aspect of our lives and elections aren’t immune from that,” said Drew McCoy, president of the election-calling company Decision Desk HQ.
Voting in person will look different — and may take longer — because of social distancing and sanitizing protocols.
Long lines are polling locations are not new. But due to social distancing and sanitizing protocols, the lines may look a lot longer and take more time to get through at early voting sites and at the polls on Election Day.
“Individuals who choose to go vote in person need to be prepared for a wait,” said Kristi Royston, elections supervisor for Gwinnett County in Georgia.
It’s hard to say how long that wait could be — the long lines during the Super Tuesday primaries caused outrage. But election officials in several battleground states are hopeful that the increased opportunities to vote remotely will lead to fewer people at the polls and fewer lines overall.
“We hope that because we’ve done the front-end work of promoting mail-in ballots, there are going to be fewer people,” said Dustin Chase, deputy supervisor of elections in Pinellas County in Florida.
Election officials said poll workers will regularly clean voting booths and other commonly touched surfaces, and sanitize pens or have voters dispose of their ballot-marking tool or take it home as a keepsake.
Poll workers and voters will be required to wear masks — and some will also don face shields — in the more than 30 states where face coverings are mandated. In other states, like Florida, it will be up to local officials to decide whether to enforce mask rules at polling locations, though voters will be encouraged to wear them in line and inside, even if it’s not required by their state or local government.
“We hope that people are going to wear masks,” Chase said, noting that while Pinellas County adopted an ordinance requiring masks, poll workers can’t enforce it.
Voting by mail? Know the deadlines, read the ballot instructions, and act early.
With an unprecedented number of Americans expected to cast ballots by mail in November — many voting this way for the first time — election officials are encouraging voters to educate themselves about the deadlines and latest rules for voting by mail in their states and to request and return their ballots as soon as possible.
“It’s not a panacea of just ease in most cases, and people need to be aware of deadlines,” McCoy said.
Each jurisdiction has its own laws on who can receive absentee ballots, whether voters need to request them, and how to fill the ballots out. And a lot of those rules have changed in recent months in response to the pandemic. According to a recent New York Times analysis, a record 76% of voters will be eligible to vote by mail in the general election.
In nine states and Washington, DC, all registered voters will automatically receive a ballot in the mail, with California, Vermont, Nevada, New Jersey, and DC voting that way for the first time. Other states have expanded their excuses for absentee voting to include concerns about COVID-19 as a valid reason to receive a mail-in ballot, or have adopted no-excuse absentee voting.
In all jurisdictions, voters are required to sign their ballots before mailing them in, but some states, like Wisconsin, also require voters to have a witness sign their ballots.
“If either of those are missing, your ballot cannot be counted,” said Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson.
States also have different deadlines for when ballots need to be returned. Some require ballots to be in the possession of election officials — either received by mail to their office or in a secure drop-off box or at a voting site — by the time the polls close, while other jurisdictions, like California, require ballots to be postmarked on or before Election Day.
“The earlier that voter can request the ballot the better … and the sooner that they can get it back into us the better,” Royston said, adding that voters need to factor possible mail delivery delays into their timelines. “I may think something should take two days to get from one city to the other, but we’ve seen it take 10 days just because you don't know how the mail is going to run.”
Trump’s efforts to undermine mail-in voting have made some voters wary, but election officials are still confident in the process.
Despite regularly voting absentee himself, Trump has claimed that widespread adoption of voting by mail will result in a “Rigged Election,” and on Monday he said the only way he would lose the election is if it is “rigged.” Political science and voting experts say there is no evidence to support Trump’s allegations and that voting by mail is indeed very secure. Even Twitter has started labeling Trump’s tweets about fraudulent mail-in voting as unsubstantiated.
But the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the Postal Service, which has been hamstrung by large cost-cutting measures, have made some voters feel less confident in the agency’s ability to handle the large spike in ballots whether or not they believe in the president’s false claims that mail-in voting is more susceptible to fraud.
Now, USPS officials are warning 46 states that their voters could be disenfranchised by slower delivery times if they don’t alter their rules and deadlines for absentee ballots.
Sixty-six-year-old Michael Claus, of Milwaukee, said he prefers to vote in person but plans to vote absentee in the general election because of COVID-19.
“I’m African American, I’m over 65, I have high blood pressure, so yeah, I have some health concerns,” Claus told BuzzFeed News.
But because he also is worried that his ballot could get lost or not arrive at the elections office on time, Claus, who said he usually votes for Democrats, plans to return his ballot at an early voting site or polling location.
“We aren’t going to trust the mail,” he said. “If I’m voting in person, I know my vote is counted. I’m absolutely sure it’s counted. If I’m doing it by mail, I’m trusting somebody else to take my ballot, count it, and make sure it gets in.”
Harold Goodman, 75, a registered Republican, said he’s never considered voting by mail — and that the pandemic hasn’t changed that — but he is concerned that the process is more susceptible to interference despite experts and election officials’ insistence that it is not.
“If there was going to be any type of hanky-panky or fooling around with the voting, it would probably be easier by mail,” said Goodman, who lives in Lake Worth, Florida. “Anytime there's a delay, knowing the public and knowing how evil the world seems to have become, there's always a chance that somebody is trying to do something illegal.”
Despite the challenges facing the Postal Service, election officials told BuzzFeed News that they have confidence in the system and believe voting by mail is still a safe and secure way for voters to have their voices heard.
Michael Dickerson, director of elections for Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, said he had “no doubt” in the agency’s ability to deliver the 100,000 or so ballots his office is expecting to get back by mail. The key is for voters to act early.
“Once you’re ready to vote it, vote it and go ahead and put it in the mail and get it back to us so that we can not have to worry about whether or not it makes the deadline,” Dickerson said.
The postmaster general, under pressure from the public and Democrats in Congress, said this week that the USPS would suspend changes to its operations until after the election.
Voters who are still concerned about their ballots being received in time can also drop them off in person to their local elections office, early voting sites, polling locations, or leave them in drop boxes, depending on what is allowed and available in their state. Some states also allow voters to track the status of their mail-in ballot.
“It is a very easy process for the voter. That's what I want everybody to realize,” Dickerson said. “It creates more work for us, but we’re in the business of doing more work, so that's fine with us.”
Fran Drago, 72, of Cape Coral, Florida, said she and her husband have already requested mail-in ballots for November.
“I’d like to go to the polls, but I live in Florida and nothing’s going to get any better down there,” Drago told BuzzFeed News, adding that her son lives in Oregon, a state that has conducted elections entirely by mail for years. “He’s mailed in his votes. There's never been any problem.”
She called Trump’s attacks on voting by mail “a bunch of hooey,” and said that while she certainly enjoys going to the polls, she doesn’t think it’s worth possibly being exposed to the coronavirus.
“I want to be around to know what happens with this election,” Drago said. “I think I have a better chance of that if I'm not trotting into a polling place.”
Early results may look a lot different.
Processing and counting mail-in ballots is more time-consuming than receiving an in-person voter’s ballot at the polling station, which means it may take a lot longer to get a clear picture of the election results.
When ballots are received, officials need to first verify that the signature on the return envelope matches the voter’s signature in the state’s registration database before they can actually open up the envelope and scan the ballot. If the signatures don’t match, some states allow election officials to notify the voter and give them an opportunity to correct the issue.
In some states, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, elections workers can’t even open the envelopes until Election Day.
“It's very labor intensive and tedious, so it’s going to take some time,” Christenson said.
Election officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they’ve taken steps to hire more temporary staff to process mail-in ballots and acquire more equipment to open and scan the ballots before counting can begin, which only starts when the polls close in many states.
“There will be election results on election night, but absentee by mail will no longer be completed on Election Day,” Royston said.
Experts say the delay in absentee ballot counting could result in election night results favoring Republicans even in areas where Democrats typically do well because Democrats tend to vote late and are more open to voting by mail.
A recent ABC News and Washington Post poll found that among Biden supporters, 54% say they prefer to vote by mail this fall, while only 17% of Trump supporters prefer mail-in voting and a whopping 78% think it’s vulnerable to fraud.
“You’ll see some potentially odd things,” McCoy said. “Over the course of that week to 10 days to two weeks [as] those votes [are] being processed and counted and if history holds, if voting patterns hold, you will see a move towards Democrats.”
It’s not a new phenomenon. In 2018, California’s “blue wave” in congressional district races only came into view weeks after the polls closed, largely due to changes in the state’s election laws that expanded the time it takes to count ballots. Democrats ultimately flipped seven Republican-held districts after trailing in four on election night.
“It didn't change. It was always there. We just got around to counting it,” McCoy said, noting that the difference between early results and the official, final tally is in no way indicative of something nefarious going on at the elections office. That’s always happened, he said, it’s just that it happened “in a shorter time frame so it really didn't catch your attention.”
Be patient. It may take days — or weeks — for some races to be called.
Because it could take days or weeks to process and count all absentee or mail-in ballots across the country, it may be difficult for news outlets to call the winners on election night when so many ballots will still be uncounted.
McCoy said he thinks “it’s possible, maybe even probable” that there will be fewer race calls on election night given the influx in mail-in ballots.
“It's as much about what's not been reported yet as it is about what has been reported,” said McCoy, whose company feeds results and race calls and data to BuzzFeed News, Vox, and other news organizations.
In Pennsylvania, which just last year adopted a law allowing all registered voters to vote absentee, officials warned that the expansion in mail-in voting may delay the battleground state’s presidential election results after nearly 1.5 million voters cast their ballots by mail in the state’s June 2 primary — 17 times the number that voted absentee in the 2016 primary.
“The reality is people need to expect it's going to take two weeks to get through those ballots,” said Delaware County Councilmember Christine Reuther, who serves as the council’s liaison to the elections bureau and board.
Reuther said she would be surprised to see Trump win in the suburban Philadelphia county, which has trended Democratic in recent elections, but the results there could contribute to the margin by which he or former vice president Joe Biden wins or loses Pennsylvania.
“That’s something networks certainly are going to have to deal with, is that case in Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump may be up by several tens of thousands of votes, and if Philadelphia is sitting there with twice as many uncounted votes on an election night, you would just wait until Philadelphia came in,” McCoy said. “So waiting an hour, you know, waiting three hours, waiting four hours — what happens if it takes two weeks?”
Calling races isn’t just about projecting a winner, McCoy said. Rather, it’s determining whether the trailing candidate has lost.
“You know certain parts of a county trend certain ways, and if you know where those votes are coming from, you understand what's left and that's how you make that projection,” he said. “A lot of this has been thrown into question because people that traditionally vote in person may vote by mail.”
The increase in mail-in voting may open the doors to more legal challenges.
Litigation over changes to laws that have expanded mail-in voting amid the pandemic could also lead to delays in certifying election results. As of Sunday, more than 200 lawsuits had already been filed in 43 states and DC over absentee or mail-in voting requirements, voting deadlines, and other issues, according to a list compiled by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt.
Sragow, who teaches election law at USC, said every aspect of the process — from who is eligible to vote to when ballots need to be returned to how long officials have to notify voters of a mismatched signature and give them a chance to prove they filled out the ballot — is ripe for being challenged in court.
“The fear is that there will be this incredible avalanche of legal actions challenging everything that's gone on and as a result there will be incredibly high levels of uncertainty about the outcome,” he said.
It’s hard to know what the impact of those actions will be, but it will likely depend on how close the election ultimately is.
“If an election is not close, a lot of this doesn’t matter, but if an election is tight, then everything we’ve just talked about could create a great deal of uncertainty about the outcome in certain elections,” Sragow said. ●