How to Ensure a Free and Fair Election During a Pandemic

On the World Class Podcast, Nathaniel Persily weighs in on the risk of voter fraud, questions about mail-in ballots, and his work with the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.

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Despite what President Donald Trump says, there is no significant risk of fraud associated with absentee voting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Nathaniel Persily told host Michael McFaul on the World Class Podcast. But just because there isn’t a high probability of voter fraud does not mean there aren’t problems with the system, he added.

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Several western states have had a majority of voters casting mail-in ballots in previous elections and have systems already in place to ensure that many of their residents will be able to vote by mail smoothly.

But many other states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina — which had absentee rates of about five percent or so in previous elections — are experiencing issues such as mismatched ballots, problems with the mail service, and complications with the returning of ballots as they try to quickly adapt the way their residents are able to vote in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are asking these states to make what is the most fundamental change to their election infrastructure in the space of about four months,” said Persily. “We should expect that there are going to be challenges in the mail balloting process.”

Persily is one of the co-founders of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, which was developed to ensure that the 2020 election can proceed with integrity, safety and equal access. He and his colleagues have been working to help prevent fraud in the mail-balloting process by verifying signatures on ballots with the signatures on file with states. They’ve also collaborated with the organization Power the Polls to recruit poll workers, as the U.S. has lost hundreds of thousands of poll workers this year who have elected to stay home on Election Day.

He and his colleagues at the Healthy Elections Project are concerned about disinformation and cybersecurity, which he says have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The training of new poll workers, the possible spread of COVID-19 at polling places, and violence in polling places are also of concern to Persily heading into the final weeks of the election cycle.

“There’s a fine line between observation and intimidation,” he noted. “The responsibility of [poll watchers] is to observe and to report if something goes awry, not to propagandize voters or intimidate them.”

Despite his uneasiness about how the election will play out — especially given the fact that a winner will likely not be declared on Election Day — Persily is confident that people will be able to safely vote on November 3. He recommends voting early and in-person if possible, and suggests that Americans should remain patient until a winner is confirmed.

“We’re all concerned about this election, but there is a legal regime in place to deal with these kinds of controversies and we should trust in the state processes and the rule of law in those states in order to resolve some of the contentious arguments that we’re going to be having over the balloting process,” Persily said.

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