Fighting Electoral Chaos

If Congress and states don’t act immediately, our country could face an electoral Chernobyl this fall.

Georgia’s train wreck of an election showed nearly every way that Election Day can go wrong: Start with a base of shoddy electronic election equipment and a system that was unprepared for a surge in mail-in ballots. Add a failure in leadership from state election officials, who had no contingency plans for extremely predictable COVID-related complications. And top it all off with Republicans’ usual affinity for ensuring that Black voters and other people of color face huge hurdles to get to the ballot box.

There is no indication that pandemic consequences are going to evaporate any time soon. Election experts are already warning there is little time left to prevent chaos in November. But if Congress and states move immediately, it is possible to prevent hundreds of thousands of Americans from differing political philosophies from being disenfranchised by the indifference and incompetence of their elected leaders. Democrats in the House of Representatives have repeatedly passed comprehensive election reforms and funding, but these efforts run into Republican obstruction every single time.

There is plenty of criticism to go around, but there’s no question Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump bear the lion’s share of the responsibility: Senator McConnell, for refusing to even allow a vote on election funding and reforms on the Senate floor, in line with his decades-long quest to make voting more difficult, and Trump for spreading rampant lies about voting by mail, even while he mails his own ballots to vote in Florida.

I’ve been sounding the alarm for what feels like ages. First with my Resilient Elections Act and then my bill with Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act. Congress needs to pass legislation that ensures every American has a chance to vote during this pandemic. It will take a rapid booster shot of federal funding, and clear guidance so states are prepared for election day, and don’t waste taxpayer money on outdated, insecure equipment.

But if Congress doesn’t act, states can do their part to conduct more successful elections.

First, prepare aggressively for a huge increase in mail-in ballots. Purchase the equipment, train workers and adjust state laws as necessary NOW, instead of waiting for the fall and then scrambling to catch up. One practical step, is instead of requiring voters to request absentee ballots and creating piles of paperwork for overwhelmed county elections officials, states should automatically mail every eligible voter a ballot this fall. Streamlining the process as much as possible will make it less likely voters get lost in red tape.

States can also learn from places like Oregon, Colorado and Utah that already vote by mail. In Oregon, state law allows counties to begin counting ballots one week before the deadline. But they can’t release any results until after 8 p.m. on the day of the election. Starting the count sooner means the final tally can be announced with less delay.

Second, be ready for COVID-related staffing shortages. According to reports, one Georgia county didn’t process absentee ballot applications for a week or more as a result of staffing shortfalls, while worker no-shows were a major problem at Election Day polling sites as well. This shouldn’t have been a surprise — 60 percent of poll workers nationwide are over the age of 60, and are at higher risk from COVID-19.

States need to prepare accordingly for older workers who stay home. My bill with Senator Klobuchar calls on states to recruit younger adults to serve as poll workers. Other governors called in the National Guard to count ballots and staff polling stations. The bottom line is, there must be a plan.

Even with all of these contingencies in place, election experts are warning that that final results could be delayed in many jurisdictions — possibly even by days. Americans need to be prepared for a slower-than-normal count. Elections officials are already working to set expectations, but the press needs to make sure it doesn’t credit bad-faith accusations from politicians who seek to use delays to spread conspiracy theories and undermine faith in our election results.

Our government needs fresh solutions to the huge challenges facing our country — unprecedented unemployment, unaffordable housing costs, inaccessible health care and unacceptable inequity, to name a few. A prerequisite to gaining the faith of the people for these solutions is free and fair elections where every eligible American can cast a ballot. If Americans see a repeat of what happened in Georgia across the country, many will rightfully question whether the results — and by extension, the government itself — are truly legitimate.

U.S. Senator from Oregon. @SenateFinance Ranking Member. wyden.senate.gov

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