As Donald Trump’s COVID bout proceeds, so does his cultish march toward a stolen election.
Trump and his backers have made clear their intent to denigrate and then defy the popular will in the November 3 vote count. Because the election will be run at the state and county levels, the threats are innumerable and complex. Let’s investigate 12 of the most dangerous:
1. Millions of People Have Been Stripped From the Voter Registration Rolls
The federal Election Assistance Commission, established in 2002 to help state and local election officials with various voting issues, has estimated that up to 16 million citizens were stripped from voter rolls around the U.S. between 2014 and 2016 alone, and the problem continues.
Many would-be voters are likely unaware that they’ve been disenfranchised and could show up to vote on November 3 or earlier, after waiting in long lines, only to be denied a ballot. A voter’s registration status can be often be checked online at state-run websites. But according to a Pew Foundation Study, more than 30 million Americans do not have internet access. Activist organizations such as People Demanding Action and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law are among the many groups focused (among other things) on preserving the voting rights of citizens who have been stripped from the voter rolls.
2. A Legislative Coup Could Occur in Pennsylvania
The Constitution may give state legislatures the right to override a popular choice for president and award its Electoral College delegation to whomever it wants. But the law is unclear, and thus far, no state has done that.
Because of gerrymandering, 29 states with 300 Electoral College votes (including swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida) have extreme right-wing legislatures. Over an angry Democratic outcry, Pennsylvania’s GOP majority is now establishing a partisan commission to investigate “election fraud,” by which it means any outcome that might not favor Donald Trump.
Given Trump’s very loud assertions that any vote count he loses must by definition be fraudulent, there is widespread fear that this commission could declare this key swing state’s tally invalid and order its electors to vote for Trump.
Given Pennsylvania’s critical spot in the Electoral College, and the possibility that other right-wing swing state legislatures could follow suit, this move alone threatens the integrity of the entire election.
On the other hand, Pennsylvania has a Democratic governor, as do Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Kansas, Montana and Kentucky. Their legal ability to block a legislative nullification of the popular vote count in choosing an Electoral College delegation is untested.
Such a case would clearly go the Supreme Court, which would have to render a decision that has no precedent (thus the paramount importance of the battle over the Supreme Court’s ninth and potentially deciding seat).
3. Right-Wing Election Officials May Attempt to Trash Mailed-In Ballots
All election boards have a spot in their process where an election official (probably not a volunteer or temporarily hired poll worker) inspects mailed-in ballots and decides whether to invalidate them. In many states, this can be done based on mismatched signatures, though Pennsylvania and North Carolina have now reacted to popular outcry by downgrading or eliminating this hard-to-meet criterion. Other trivialities such as an omitted middle initial or address number, a missed box, a missing “privacy” envelope or a misstated birth date could still result in an invalidated ballot.
This screening process is generally done by election board staff. But state laws generally allow “observers” to sit next to the screeners. Rightist Republicans have infamously lobbied hard to get as many suspected Democrat ballots pitched as possible. If Democrats this year hope to have a chance to counteract their influence, they had best plan to have balancing observers of their own in those slots.
Reports from North Carolina and elsewhere indicate far more ballots from Black Americans have been invalidated as opposed to those from white voters.
4. Ballot Witness Signing Agreements Make Mail-In Voting Harder
Key swing states Wisconsin and North Carolina require a witness to sign mailing envelopes or a statement to accompany a mailed-in ballot.
The requirement is a deliberate impediment. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), who lives alone, says she had to go out into the street to recruit a stranger for a signature. The added hurdle provides hostile screeners within an election board with an additional excuse to pitch ballots.
5. Digital Ballot-Marking Devices Are Vulnerable to Hacking
For election protectionists, a hand-marked paper ballot is the universal gold standard. Vote-by-mail has thus been widely embraced because (among other things) it marks a transition from easily hacked touchscreens to tangible, retainable paper.
Despite these concerns, hundreds of state and county election board chiefs have opted to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on digital “ballot-marking devices.” These complex, easily hackable machines can be (as opposed to pens or pencils) confusing to use, grossly expensive and subject to frequent breakdowns.
Defenders of ballot-marking devices point out that they can address challenges for people with disabilities, and the need for multilingual voting in places like Los Angeles, where 14 or more languages might be in play. But the solution they provide to those issues comes with a host of other concerns, along with allegations that profiteering and hackability are in part driving their popularization.
The roughly 30,000 digital ballot-marking devices that broke down and devastated Georgia’s 2018 election cost taxpayers $107 million in a contract awarded to a close adviser to state officials who infamously “defeated” Democratic Stacy Abrams for governor.
6. Republican Leaders Are Denying Drop Boxes for Paper Ballots in Urban Counties
It has long been accepted practice for election boards to distribute safe street corner depositories for voters to drop in their paper ballots.
This year, however, Republican officials are engaged in a denial of deployed drop boxes, in an attack that is particular sinister in conjunction with Trump’s endless attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, which are widely seen as a thinly disguised assault on mail-in voting, making it as difficult as possible for voters to receive and return their ballots.
Key swing states Ohio and Texas have now pointedly refused to place drop boxes in neighborhoods where they might be useful. Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose has wobbled on the issue. He has publicly supported widespread distribution of the boxes, but questioned the expense of monitoring them with security cameras. When a local judge and ordered them deployed, LaRose then reversed his advocacy and has gone to court to limit their distribution to one per county.
Texas’s Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is doing the same thing, meaning big urban counties like Ohio’s Franklin (Columbus) and Texas’s Harris (Houston) will have just one drop box for 1.3 and 4.7 million people respectively. A grassroots campaign in Michigan to get more boxes has been somewhat successful.
7. There May Be a Shortage of Early Voting Poll Workers
Because of doubts about postal ballot deliveries, Democrats and election protectionists are now advocating early voting.
This shifted emphasis has raised questions about gathering sufficient workers to staff the polling centers. Traditionally, retired citizens have kept the election centers going. This year, due to COVID, many are not showing up.
But a recent surge of interest among millennials may fill the gap. In fact, the days are long, but the pay can range up to $20/hour. Overall, this could mark a historic shift in the demographics of who will toil to keep our elections viable.
8. Unworkable Vote-Counting Timetables and Rejection of Dropped-Off Ballots Threaten to Disenfranchise Voters in Some States
In many states, voters may personally deliver to voting centers the ballots they received in the mail. Many, however, will not accept them on November 3, claiming they will not be postmarked and therefore cannot be confirmed as to their arrival date. Numerous court cases on acceptable deadlines have proliferated through the court system, with Republicans always demanding that ballots received after November 3 (even those postmarked on or before) must be rejected.
A bill proposed by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) would impose a deliberately unworkable timetable for both beginning and ending vote counts, clearly designed to debilitate large urban precincts from getting a full accounting of absentee/vote-by-mail ballots.
Scott got his own Senate seat in 2018 after GOP-controlled courts ended the ballot count in heavily Democratic south Florida counties, replaying the 2000 presidential election when the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore ended the vote count before it could be completed (Supreme Court seats have since gone to John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh, both of whom played key roles in fighting against completion of that vote count, as did new nominee Amy Coney Barrett).
As there has been no definitive national ruling on when counting early and vote-by-mail ballots can begin, and when it must end, actual practice will vary this year from election board to election board.
9. Some Election Supervisors Are Trashing Digital Images of Ballots
Most ballots this year will be counted on digital imaging machines, which can be fast to tabulate and highly reliable. A paper ballot scanned into such machines can yield an easily stored digital image that can be quickly counted, with the paper ballot itself preserved in a bin on the other side. The machines cannot run without producing a digital image, which are easily read, tabulated and stored. In Florida and elsewhere, election supervisors are claiming they don’t have the capacity to retain the digital images, and are quickly discarding them. Lawsuits by election protectionists John Brakey, Susan Pynchon, Ray Lutz and others are demanding the images be preserved. But so far results have been mixed.
10. Digital Scanners Are Vulnerable to Hacking
For all their simplicity, the digital scanners on which most of the election will be tabulated can be hacked. There are four principal producers with multiple models. Many can be fitted with modems linking them to the internet, though there is no reason to do so other than for purposes of hacking. Election officials have resisted transparency on the coding of these machines. Retained paper ballots provide a reliable means of checking the reported outcome by recount. But an immediate election night outcome could be pre-hacked, with obvious implications.
11. Pro-Trump “Poll Monitors” Are Engaging in Voter Intimidation
For many months, Trump Republicans have been promising to budget $20 million to mobilize an intimidation force of 50,000 “poll monitors,” generally expected to come heavily armed. The first of these showed up in a strongly Democratic precinct in Alexandria, Virginia, as early voting began on September 18. An unruly, unmasked, aggressively pro-Trump strike force blocked sidewalks and shouted slogans while weaponizing the virus. We can expect similar instances to occur in the weeks ahead.
12. Majority-Black Cities and Neighborhoods May Continue to Face Longer Wait Times
As early voting becomes more common, breakdowns in large urban election centers will escalate. In Ohio during the 2004 election, white voters were able to cast their ballots in roughly 18 minutes. For Black Americans, the average wait was 52 minutes, with many waiting even longer. Students at the liberal Kenyon College waited 10 hours.
Since then the pattern has held, especially in places like Detroit and Flint in 2016. In Milwaukee and Madison in April 2020, people who spent hours in line waiting to vote may have been afflicted with the coronavirus.
As in 2000, 2004 and 2016, an absurdly complex, irregular, obsolete and vulnerable system may give the GOP ample opportunity to again win the White House with a minority of U.S. voters.
Fortunately, a grassroots election protection movement has risen up to stop them. With a tsunami of local, state and national organizations scrutinizing and fighting through every corner of this bizarre anti-democratic hodgepodge, the public may stand a chance. The details listed above represent just the tip of an incredibly challenging local, state and national iceberg that must be melted before the U.S. can envision a truly democratic future.
Note: Bob Fitrakis, Joel Segal and Harvey Wasserman co-convene the Grassroots Emergency Election Protection Coalition (www.grassrootsep.org), which stages 90-minute Monday Zoom meetings on voting integrity. Bob and Harvey have co-written The Strip & Flip Disaster of America’s Stolen Elections, which resides at www.freepress.org, along with Bob’s Fitrakis Files.