If the four years since Election Day 2016 haven’t been tumultuous enough, wait until this year’s Election Day night. If the election is close, that one night will be fraught with more risk and danger than anything people have imagined over the almost four years of the Trump presidency to date.
As a survivor of the 2000 recount, I do not want anyone to go through what happened to George Bush or Al Gore. Today however, animosity to President Trump is so high that a close election will test our nation’s divisions in dangerous ways that go way beyond what was experienced in 2000, a comparatively calm and respectful year in politics.
The threat on Nov. 3 is not from a delayed election. The threat is not because the election will be rigged or marked by fraud. The threat is from a close election whose outcome is in doubt.
Our nation survived close elections before, but a surge in mail-in voting will make 2020 different.
Turnout in 2020 will likely break all records. Inspired by love and hate for President Trump, turnout increases from 140,114,502 votes in 2016 (a record) to more than 150 million votes. In Florida, Trump is up by 5,000 votes over Joe Biden. In Ohio, Biden is up 5,000 votes over Trump. Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa and Georgia are too close to call.
Both candidates declare victory. Both candidates accuse the other of cheating and both candidates go to court.
Thanks to the pandemic and because many states which had no experience with mostly-mail balloting allowed it for the first time, the absentee ballot count becomes the central issue in determining who won the election.
In 2016, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 33 million absentee ballots were cast, of which less than one percent were rejected. That still amounted to 318,728 votes thrown out nationally. In Florida, 21,973 were rejected. Pennsylvania was 17,574, Georgia 13,677 and Ohio 10,189.
With vote by mail surging this year, many more votes will be thrown out.
With a disputed presidency on the line, what happens next is predictable. "Every vote counts,” the loser in that state will cry, hoping the rejected absentee ballots will put them over the top. The flip side is the rules.
Either rules matter and ballots get rejected (typically because they arrive too late, signatures don’t match or there is no signature) or the rules get made up on the fly, depending on which party is in power and whether disobeying the rules helps Trump or Biden.
This exact dispute is taking place now in a contested Democratic Congressional primary in New York City where incumbent Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s race against her progressive opponent, Suraj Patel, ended up too close to call on Election night, June 23. The winner still hasn’t been declared.
New York, for the first time in 2020, sent absentee ballot applications to all voters, leading to a flood of mail balloting, overloading the system. Statewide in the 2016 primary, New York had 157,885 requests for absentee ballots; this year the state had 1.7 million requests. I don’t care how much money a state has; no state that hasn’t done it before can handle a surge in mail voting this late in the game.
A massive 25 percent of absentee ballots, or 12,000 votes were rejected for a variety of reasons, leading Patel to sue in court, demanding “every vote count.”
The fight in New York City pales to what will happen if the end of the Trump presidency is on the line. After Trump won decisively in 2016, many Democrats declared Trump wasn’t their president and some partisans encouraged the Electoral College to overturn the results. Just imagine the lengths both candidates will go to defeat their opponents if the 2020 election is close, contested and dragging on.
The problem is compounded by states that have not previously engaged in widespread mail-in voting trying it now. Washington state, which has a long history of in-mail voting, took years to get their process right. It was bi-partisan and fair, not conducted in the middle of a pandemic.
States trying it now are asking for turmoil, something our nation cannot afford.
Shifting to largely mail-in voting this close to an election also raises bi-partisan concerns about the conduct of the postal service. Democrats fear that the new postmaster general, a Trump appointee, will put his finger on the scale and try to tip the election to Trump. Republicans fear postal unions whose carriers pick up and deliver ballots will put their fingers on the scale to tip the election to Biden.
In-person voting remains the best and safest way to conduct elections. According to the Washington Post, mail-in ballots are three times more likely to be rejected than in-person balloting. As Wisconsin demonstrated with its in-person primary election in April, two weeks after the vote there, no uptick in the state’s coronavirus count was found.
Just as people regularly shop and wait in lines at Walmart’s and countless other stores on a daily basis today, voting in person can be indeed be conducted safely, undermining the rationale states with no experience with massive mail-in voting are using to engage in risk by trying it for the first time.
States should focus on conducting safe in-person elections and not engage in risky mail-in voting for the first time. The price our divided nation will pay on Election night if this election is close will be too high.