Picture this: You’re an elections official in a small town, wading through the most unusual balloting process of your career. It’s Nov. 1, two days from the “official” Election Day, but hundreds or thousands of mail-in ballots have already arrived at your workplace.
Suddenly, you get a call: One of your coworkers has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The entire office must be quarantined at home. The uncounted ballots begin to stack up.
“There is a fair chance that the entire staff could be compromised,” said Rachel Orey, a research analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), which last month staged several tabletop disaster scenarios — or “legitimacy threats” — like this one with state and local elections officials.
BPC’s day of tabletop games was just one in a number of such events aimed at preparing governments across an uneasy nation for whatever might happen five weeks from now.
The exercise, inspired by the Department of Homeland Security’s own cybersecurity-oriented games with local officials, included around three dozen officials. Among them were top officials from states and counties across the country, including Oregon’s Director of Elections Steve Trout and Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe.
And while there are plenty of other ongoing threats to the legitimacy of this year’s elections — Donald Trump has said for weeks that he’s the only possible legitimate winner this November, and fringe media are raising hell about an imaginary left-wing coup plot — Orey said election officials were primarily focused on the tangibles, such as: What happens if there’s no one around to run the dang thing?
What If Election Workers Have To Quarantine?
BPC’s exercise shook out a few possible cures for the staffing issue.
Offices can be divided in half, slashing any potential losses due to COVID-19 quarantine. The state of Washington’s board of elections has done this, Orey noted. If one half of the group has to go into quarantine, the remaining half will split up again.
Staff can be trained as “jacks-of-all-trades,” so that officials with specialty knowledge can be replaced on the fly. And depending on the jurisdiction, election workers also have the authority to surge short-term staffing to meet ballot-counting needs.
Still, some offices are simply too small to take precautionary steps that others might, or don’t have the legal authority to carry out a last-minute hiring boost.
And some scenarios are just hard to plan for. What happens, for example, if a poll worker tests positive for COVID-19 on Election Day — while they’re at a polling place? That location would have to be closed, and then what?
If all else fails, BPC recommended, consider calling in the National Guard or other state officials who can fill necessary shoes.
What If Voters And Protesters Clash?
Election problems tend to compound. Take the process of voting itself: With more virus-related safety precautions in effect in polling places, like plexiglass buffers and social distancing rules, progress at polling places can slow down. Lines may lengthen. Eventually, they extend past the boundaries marking campaign-free buffer zones — leading potentially to interactions between voters and flag-wavers or protesters.
That’s what happened in Fairfax County, Virginia recently. Excitement for the first day of early voting led to a whopper of a line outside the county’s government center. A group of Trump supporters, outside of the state’s 40-foot limit for electioneering, yelled and waved signs. “Some voters, and elections staff, did feel intimidated by the crowd,” the county’s general registrar said later of the scene.
Election officials participating in BPC’s exercise expressed concern about the same thing happening to them, said Matthew Weil, director of BPC’s Elections Project. But there aren’t many good answers.
“The problem for election officials is they don’t have a whole lot of control when it comes to protests outside of polling places,” Weil told TPM. “It’s kind of just the fact of how it is.”
Bringing in law enforcement can be “intimidating on its own,” he noted, given the long history of law enforcement’s role in voter suppression. And BPC’s own analysis has shown that voters wait longer in areas with more minority voters, Orey noted, as well as in low-income areas and those with more renters.
Three decades ago, the Republican Party’s use of off-duty law enforcement to patrol polling places in New Jersey resulted in a lawsuit and a consent decree that lasted through 2017. President Donald Trump’s musing about using law enforcement to patrol polling places ripped these memories back into the headlines, as have his campaign’s efforts to recruit a poll-watching “army.” In 2018, false social media posts forced ICE to clarify that its officers would not be present at polling places.
“It’s a touchy subject,” Weil noted of having law enforcement around voters. “Lots of places have pretty bad histories when it comes to law enforcement at the polls.”
What If A ‘Tsunami’ Of Mailed Ballots Gives Trump Ammo?
The BPC report on its exercise takes pains to avoid calling out the President by name. But Trump has used the likelihood of record mail-in voting to undermine confidence in results.
He tweeted recently that it would indicate a “rigged” election if mail-in ballots tabulated after Nov. 3 make the winning difference for Biden. More generally, he’s baselessly claimed that mail-in balloting makes for widespread fraud.
Thus, the potential “tsunami” of mail-in ballots poses a problem, BPC noted. Combined with the myriad state-level restrictions on when mailed ballots can actually begin to be counted, results will likely take longer this year.
“[I]n a highly polarized year like 2020, delays in results or wild swings in vote totals (as more votes get tallied) will incentivize candidates to claim misconduct on the part of election officials,” BPC said in its report on the exercise.
“Even scarier, we can imagine cases where a candidate claims a victory they have not yet earned and then calls for an end to the vote counting, well ahead of statutorily-allowed deadlines.”
But Weil asserted that, regardless of the rhetoric, elections officials he’s spoken with “are going to do their jobs.”
“They have enough things to worry about,” he said.