Elections should not be among the victims of the coronavirus.
by Bob Bauer, Ben Ginsberg and Nathaniel Persily
Voters should not have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their health. They should not have to endure confusion over the location of polling places or the availability of vote-by-mail. Yet voters might face exactly those problems in November if we do not act now to protect the election from Covid-19.
To safeguard the inclusivity and legitimacy of our elections, the federal government should provide resources that states should use in a credible, bipartisan fashion.
We must act now. Elections — American democracy itself — should not be among the pandemic’s victims.
We’ve done something like this before. Roughly seven years ago, we led a bipartisan commission set up by President Barack Obama. There had been significant problems with the operation of the electoral process in 2012, and our task was to suggest possible solutions. Two of us (Mr. Bauer and Mr. Ginsberg) were co-chairs and the other (Mr. Persily) was the senior research director. As part of our broad charge, and in light of Hurricane Sandy, we looked at the challenges posed by natural disasters. Our recommendations on these and other election administrative issues were well received by election administrators across the country, of both parties. We also noted where more progress was urgently needed.
As the virus spreads throughout the country, many of the issues we identified are freshly relevant. Our democracy’s financial shortfall could become a full-on crisis: States and jurisdictions will struggle to meet the demands of the pandemic. Congress last provided states with significant funds after the 2000 election, so aging voting equipment could be replaced. Now cash-strapped states need to greatly expand voting by mail, consolidate polling places and fundamentally reconceive the voting system to ensure voters and poll workers in 2020 can perform their duties without risk to their own or to the public’s health.
And facing an economic downturn, states may soon tighten belts on many nonessential services. Congress must confront this emergency. States need at least $2 billion to assist them in their preparations for this election. The $400 million in the current bill receiving congressional and presidential approval represents a vitally important start but will not be enough to address issues election administrators will face across the country — not to mention in the number of states that will be presidential battlegrounds and have competitive Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races. At this funding level, it will be necessary to allocate resources and ensure their efficient use in the states that most require the funding.
Who will assist with the best, most informed decisions about the spending of these funds? Our country’s elections are conducted in over 10,000 state and local jurisdictions — and in the face of a bewildering maze of federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations. Far-reaching, permanent reform will be impossible to achieve right now. Democrats and Republicans are deeply divided over fundamental issues, like the authority of partisan elected officials and the role of the federal government. But extraordinary measures to shore up professional election administration should attract support across both parties.
Our commission was successful because its membership drew from the business community and local election officials. A similar approach, led by the private sector rather than government, is needed to deal with the current crisis. The commission could be led, for example, by former presidents and supported by organizations like National Association of State Election Directors, the National Association of Secretaries of States, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Academy of Sciences. But its members should be people who have actually run elections at the local level. It should also include people from private industry with relevant experience, the military for expertise in logistics and the medical community for knowledge about infectious disease.
With the luxury of time and on a more modest scale, our commission attempted — with a fully bipartisan membership and the support of experts around the country — to supply the kind of assistance needed today. State and local jurisdictions were remarkably ready to have help thinking through the major problems of running elections. Our recommendations, thanks to the work of nonprofit organizations, inspired programs to modernize voter registration and improve the design and management of polling places.
But the adoption of these policies only mitigated the ever-present difficulties of the electoral process. Today’s public health emergency exacerbates them and adds new ones. The calls for expanded voting by mail, for example, pose a fresh set of issues. States without a robust history of mail balloting will need to pay great attention to signature verification and chain of custody. The overarching principle is that every qualified voter must have the opportunity to cast his or her ballot.
As always, success depends on the details: sound planning and good practice. A national commission structure such as one we propose could help cut through the confusion and partisan contention and bring real help.
The elections — both the primaries and general — must go on. The coronavirus presents unique challenges, but the United States has held elections under similarly difficult circumstances. We held elections during the Civil War and the World Wars. And even though it led to reduced turnout at the polls, the Spanish flu pandemic did not delay the 1918 midterm elections. Our democracy can and should demonstrate resilience in 2020, just as it did in the face of previous challenges.
Large-scale infection of the population may be unavoidable. But we can act now to ensure that the virus does not infect the democratic system as well. This cannot be done without the commitment of substantial resources and bipartisan, expert guidance, which is in short enough supply — and desperately needed to sustain our democracy through the present crisis.
Bob Bauer, a law professor at New York University, Ben Ginsberg, a partner at Jones Day, and Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford University, were members of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration of 2013-14.