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“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
This is part of the common oath that the thousands of election administrators and close to a million pollworkers take each election. Indeed, it is part of the oath of office many of our elected officials swear to, including those in Congress and the Vice President of the United States.
I cannot think of another election where the oath was so tested, where the mettle of the legions of Americans who make our Democracy function were challenged and their integrity maligned as it was this year. A year when election officials were faced with ensuring the sanctity of the ballot was protected as fires raged, hurricanes battered our shores, tornadoes struck, and almost a quarter million Americans lost their lives in a global pandemic. A year when philanthropy stepped in and provided resources in excess of what our sitting Congress saw fit to allocate. A year when too often partisan rancor impeded the practical solutions provided by state and local election officials. A year when more Americans than ever before made certain that their voices were heard at the ballot box. Yes, a year that we should be celebrating the tenacity of the American Voter and those who serve them in defiance of all these odds.
Every election has a story to tell. Coming into the 2020 election, officials worked to take the necessary steps to ensure a positive voter experience, in light of the extreme enthusiasm for this presidential cycle and anticipated high voter turnout in the midst of a global pandemic. Election officials around the country considered whether existing resources were sufficient, if their forecasted budget covered potential additional supplies and staffing, and how to most efficiently handle registration. These additional considerations were tackled on top of the need to strengthen cyber defenses and thwart attempts by foreign adversaries to shake our trust in the American electoral process that arose from the 2016 election.
A few weeks into the presidential primary season, a global pandemic hit the nation — creating dramatic differences between states with early election dates and those with elections later in the spring. The issues that arose during the primaries highlighted the need for election administration to adjust and rise to the unprecedented challenges presented by a nation simultaneously battling a pandemic. Elections offices were strained by — and struggled to fulfill — an extreme increase in ballot applications from the massive shift to absentee voting and voting by mail. Poll worker shortages, polling location denials, and limited early voting restricted in-person voting options and resulted in voters waiting in line — in masks and protective gear — for hours. In many jurisdictions, prescriptive state laws dictated what type of facilities could be used as polling places and who could serve as a poll worker and in which locations. These laws in some cases prevented officials from serving their voters to the best of ability.
Voters Needed Options
Some states, however, were better positioned with laws, processes and resources in place that prioritized voters’ varied needs. States that provided voters with more options in terms of when and where to vote were best able to pivot during the pandemic to spread out when ballots were cast throughout the voting period of the election, enabling voters to fulfill their civic duty while still combating the spread of COVID-19. Election Day became the “last day to vote” in those states, not the only day to vote. Those states that took decisive actions to listen to their state and local election officials on how to best conduct the election led to more than 100 million ballots cast before Election Day — more than half of the total turnout.
Although the final official numbers are not yet in from every state, we know that more voters than ever opted to have their ballot handed to them by their United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier rather than a poll worker, and that the dedicated public servants at USPS delivered the majority of ballots within their First Class delivery standard of two to five days with the average ballot tracking at two days for local voters, according to Ballot Scout, ballot tracking service offered by Democracy Works.
However, there were still challenges. In some jurisdictions this year, USPS leadership agreed to manually pull ballots out of the mailstream and deliver them locally rather than processing through the normal automated process at centralized processing plants. This caused confusion around ballot tracking, and led some to believe — and promote the false narrative — that ballots were lost rather than simply not scanned due to the manual delivery. Additionally, tens of thousands of ballots were mailed after USPS’s recommended timeline — one week before ballots were due — with many mailed on Election Day in states that reject ballots not received by the time the polls close.
Democracy Under Attack
As in the 2016 election, we saw continued efforts to undermine confidence in the system in an attempt to dissuade participation and discredit the outcome of the race. More than 400 lawsuits were filed either seeking to restrict or expand voters’ options. This tension extends to policies either lauded as serving the electorate well or attempts to wrongly influence the election including practices like drive-thru voting, ballot drop boxes, mailing of ballot applications to all registered voters, mailing ballots to all registered voters, paying for postage, expansion of in-person voting, expansion of early voting, use of postmarks or other information from USPS to demonstrate the ballot had been mailed before the close of the polls.
The Great Experiment
The story of this election is still being written. When it is done, we must carry forward the lessons learned this year, and not fall into the trap of returning the status quo. In the months ahead, many states will rightfully consider codifying the voting options used this year, and work to remedy the disconnect in some laws with USPS processes — including ballot application deadlines and “postmark” definitions. In a year full of immense challenges, there have been huge accomplishments and devastating challenges. We must now commit to adopting those that were successful and remedying others that were not to ensure voters are better served in the future.
Tammy Patrick is a Senior Advisor to the Democracy Fund, helping to lead the effort to foster a voter-centric elections system and work to provide election officials across the country the tools and knowledge they need to best serve their voters. She joined the Democracy Fund from the Bipartisan Policy Center, where she focused on furthering the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) to which she was appointed as a Commissioner by President Barack Obama in 2013.