Will the coronavirus pandemic take the American election system’s integrity as another casualty?
That’s at stake if social distancing needs push American lawmakers to attempt to fully shift the election to the mailbox or the computer. It would be an unprecedented task at an uncomfortable pace to make the transition by election day.
I fear the worst if special circumstances necessary for this election shift into the norm for future elections.
The election process’s integrity is at stake.
Voting by mail and electronic voting systems are more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting.
The national infrastructure that manages our electoral process is unique. It’s complicated, organic, and localized. Here’s how:
Neither the U.S. government nor any state maintains a registry of its citizens. For the sake of keeping the size and power of the government limited and maintaining privacy standards as U.S. citizens, this is a good thing. But it complicates our voter registration systems enormously. In fact, it is a direct tradeoff. To keep the U.S. government from having the potential to engage in any China-style big brother citizen monitoring, there can be no centralized citizen registry. However, this means voting will require extra effort on our behalf, as citizens, to maintain the integrity of the one person, one vote guarantee.
Elections are largely administered at the local level. Most counties and some cities elect or appoint supervisors of elections to determine how and where voting will be conducted and to monitor the vote collection and counting process. States also have various election officials. The Federal Election Commission, or FEC, makes rules for campaign activity and finance but has no role in conducting or counting votes. And, lastly, there’s the Electoral College--a system born from the Constitution itself that gets involved in deciding the President. The College guarantees that less populous states still have a say against those states that house massive American metropolises.
All of this combined means that the U.S. has over 10,000 different election administration jurisdictions.
Each of these jurisdictions is working to identify valid voters without a formal registry of citizens to cross check. Put another way, there is no way for these jurisdictions to concretely verify that a voter actually exists. Registering to vote is a voluntary process; in many cases the supervisor of elections takes the registrant at their word as inputted on the voter registration form. One Florida journalist tested to see how easily she could apply for fake voter registrations under made up names. She was successful.
Once a voter is added to a roll, it is then upon the jurisdiction to ensure the voter is still alive and eligible to vote, and doesn’t register again. Not all jurisdictions are good about this. Judicial Watch has concluded that “voter registration lists across the country remain significantly out of date.” 378 counties nationwide have rolls that have more registered voters than people living in the county.
Voter fraud is normally played down in the media because it is calculated as a percentage of indicted individuals versus votes cast in a period of elections. This is problematic. Voter fraud is easy to commit and hard to pin on perpetrators—and few investigations take place. People can drive to multiple counties and vote multiple times, or register dead parents, friends, or even pets.
Each of the 10,000 different voting administration jurisdictions is also run by a different person. Some are good at this job, and some are not. Here again lies a tradeoff: a massively decentralized voting administration system is good because it would be impossible to rig, but faces the issue of non-professional, unaccountable, or biased individuals involved in the process.
All of this is to say that there is room for error in our election system. It’s not a bad thing that room for error exists – it keeps the process decentralized and our privacy intact. But it does mean voting must be conducted in the manner with the highest verifiable accuracy. That means we show up to the polls, present ourselves as living, existing citizens eligible to vote, make our decision, and leave our vote in an accountable chain of custody.
Mailing a vote in or using the computer doesn’t give the regulating jurisdiction the option to verify identity or maintain control of the ballot. Fraud is more than possible. It happens all the time with absentee ballots.
Consider the practice of ballot harvesting: party volunteers pick up ballots from people, either aggressively encouraging a vote for their candidate or filling the ballot out for the individual. Who’s vote is really reflected?
Granted, accommodations must be made for those who truly cannot make it to the polls. Each local jurisdiction should ensure they have a program in place to assist as many people as possible in casting their vote, and have a voting infrastructure that accommodates the entire population. A small portion of verifiable absentee ballots are certainly acceptable. Voter suppression should not be tolerated. But shame on those who accuse the election-integrity minded with the goal of suppressing the vote. They are not synonymous.
Americans need to feel confident in their ability to vote for their representatives. Government leaders are legitimate only to the extent that our election system is sound. Exceptions aside, our election system should be grounded on in-person voting. These principles serve the best interests of every American, regardless of party affiliation. One person, one vote.
Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.