COVID-19 and its Impact on the 2020 Election by Professor Nate Persily

Updated: Oct 28

The current pandemic is posing an unprecedented challenge in this election season, one that’s requiring an all hands on deck approach.


In early March it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to have severe impacts on this election. Since then, we have witnessed how the virus has exacerbated all of the inherent dysfunctions of the American electoral system.

At the same time, the measures needed to adapt our electoral system to the pandemic have also become clear: (1) move as many people to vote by mail as possible, and (2) retrofit polling places to ensure social distancing.


Whether voting by mail or returning to in-person polling places, everyone's voting in a little bit of a different way this time. We’ve never attempted such a massive shift in the basic way that we vote in the United States in such a short period.


There are some structural impediments in the American system which make this kind of shift very difficult. First, we have the incredible decentralization in our election administration system, where over 10,000 local jurisdictions are making the critical decisions. On top of that is the partisanship - omnipresent in the United States - where there’s extensive polarization between the two major parties on things like voting by mail, at least at the national level. Plus, we've had a significant loss of polling places. For some communities, especially in communities of color, we find significant polling place consolidation in the 2020 primary elections. Some of that is because places like California are moving to vote by mail, but a lot of it is due to a lack of poll workers and suitable facilities.


A move to greater mail balloting is not enough on its own; however, we also need safe polling places. Election officials have undertaken a massive effort this election season to retrofit polling locations to avoid risk from the virus, a challenge made even more difficult at a time when schools and senior living centers are taking themselves out of the inventory of available sites. In addition, we’ve had to recruit countless numbers of new poll workers. The average age of poll workers in the U.S. during a normal election is over 61, but since they are at high risk for the virus, many of them won’t be showing up this year.


A big part of our massive education and outreach program has been to communicate that voting is going to be different this time. Lots of polling places will be moved and people will be voting in new ways. LeBron James and a whole group of sports figures have advocated the idea to use sporting arenas, because very large facilities are needed to ensure social distance. In addition to arena voting, there are going to be people who will vote from their cars and in some places, take a number in order to vote, like in restaurants.


Changes like these have generated questions about election security, but the perception of fraud around this election is greater than the reality. While we don't have an extensive history of vote by mail fraud in the U.S. we are seeing very polarized, partisan perceptions of fraud and that, in and of itself, is a problem. As a result, many election officials are directing people to vote early in-person if they can, not only because of the stresses with the postal service, but also because we want to make sure that we have results as soon as possible.


Because of the high numbers of mail ballots, we might not know the winner of the presidential election on Election Night. Many battleground states will not begin opening their mail ballots until Election Day, so it may take several days to count those votes. In truth, we have never had all the ballots counted on Election Night; states have always waited several weeks to officially certify results. This year, however, so many states will have so many more mail ballots that we may need to wait an unusually long time to learn the final result -- that is, unless the election is a blowout, in which case we may know the result a few hours after polls close.


The best advice for voters at this stage of the process is to “hurry up and wait.” We need people to vote early and then be patient. We might not know the results as early as we would like, but the most important thing is to get an accurate count not a quick one.





Nate Persily is a law professor at Stanford University and co-founder of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. This post is excerpted from several speeches of his available on YouTube.


For questions about voting by mail and resources for in-person voting, go to https://healthyelections.org/


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