David Litt is a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and author of “Democracy In One Book Or Less: How It Works, Why It Doesn’t, and Why Fixing It Is Easier Than You Think.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN)It’s been one month since the New York state primary — and, in several races, the results aren’t yet in. The reason for the delay? Some of the absentee ballots, which voters and election officials are relying on during the pandemic, remain untallied.
To use just one example, according to Suraj Patel, New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s Democratic primary challenger, as of mid-July, nearly 99% of absentee ballots
have yet to be counted in New York’s 12th District. In some portions of the district, he says, between 20% and 30% of ballots have been permanently discarded, likely because they were dropped off on Election Day but not postmarked until the day after.
New York is not alone in struggling to run an election during a pandemic. Primaries nationwide have been plagued
by legal battles
, long lines
at in-person voting sites and confusion
surrounding the switch to mail. If these problems aren’t resolved before November, it’s easy to see how contests throughout the country — not to mention the presidential race itself — could be plunged into chaos.
But it’s not too late to protect the integrity of the 2020 election while making it safe for every eligible American to vote. There are simple steps states and counties can take that would dramatically reduce the possibility of disaster at the ballot box or mailbox this year.
First, states must set clear ground rules as early as possible. Because the impacts of coronavirus weren’t really felt in America until March
, many officials had little time to make decisions about how to run the primary election process, leading to fear and confusion among the electorate. But when it comes to the general election, we have more time to prepare.
Who automatically gets sent an absentee ballot? How many polling places remain open? When is the deadline for ballots to be sent or received? With the coronavirus still raging across the country, these kinds of questions must be decided decisively and quickly enough that any legal challenges to new rules can work their way through the courts.
Second, when adapting to the virus, states should err on the side of making it easier, not harder, to vote. Contrary to President Donald Trump’s evidence-free tweets
, there’s no indication that mail-in voting will lead to large-scale election fraud. Five states
already conducted their elections entirely by mail before the pandemic hit, and the President himself voted by mail
in 2018. But there is clear evidence
that confusion over mail-in balloting, coupled with overly strict rules about which ballots do and do not count, can discourage voting and invalidate eligible citizens’ ballots.
To prevent this, states should mail all registered voters not only an absentee ballot, but clear instructions for how to use it. Upon receiving those ballots, states should apply the election equivalent of “innocent until proven guilty.” Rather than assume ballots with small errors are fraudulent and shouldn’t be counted, they should assume they’re valid and should be counted. In practice, this means making an aggressive effort to contact voters whose ballots are in danger of being thrown out for minor errors and giving them ample time to correct any irregularities.
Of course, such an outreach effort will require a great deal of labor, which is why states and counties must begin to dramatically expand their Election Day staff. With more than half
of poll workers above age 60 and at greater risk for the virus, traditional polling places face an employee shortage that leads directly to long lines. Meanwhile, boards of elections are generally used to count a small handful of absentee ballots, not the flood they can expect this year.
With our democracy at risk, Congress should immediately allocate more money to hire election workers and pay them fairly. But even if federal lawmakers fail to protect our elections, states and cities can get creative. High schoolers and other people at lower risk from the coronavirus can be given a day off to work the polls. Public employees can be deputized to count absentee ballots or attempt to contact those whose ballots might otherwise be discarded.
Finally, officials need to educate the public about what election night during a pandemic will look like. While there’s nothing in the Constitution that says votes must be tallied in a single day, week or even month, we’ve grown accustomed to knowing the winner of nearly every race within hours of the polls closing. 2020 likely won’t work that way. States like California, which already conduct a substantial amount
of their voting via mail, frequently see large swings between the initial count and the final totals reported later.
When this happens, it isn’t because elections are being manipulated; it’s because the numbers change as valid votes that were mailed in are received. But many Americans may not know this.
And many politicians, already egged on by Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, may attempt to call the election after a few hours, even with thousands or millions of valid votes left to be counted. That’s why it’s important for those with large platforms to spread the message well before the first vote is cast: counting may be slower because of the pandemic, but democracy is worth the wait.
With Covid-19 case counts rising again
in the US, and much of our political leadership unable or unwilling to confront the virus, the country’s self-image as a “shining city on a hill” seems more in doubt than ever. But when it comes to the most exceptional of American institutions — our democracy itself — we can still show the world America at its best. By acting quickly and taking commonsense, non-partisan steps, we can preserve the most important element of our country’s promise: that we, the people, can shape our destiny together.