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Experts warn of 2020 'meltdown' as election funding faces rocky path through Congress

“There is a real significant risk to the integrity of the election if we don’t invest now in our election infrastructure.”
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WASHINGTON — The House passed sweeping legislation Friday that gives states $3.6 billion to boost election infrastructure and allow every American to vote by mail as the coronavirus pandemic continues to claim lives with no end in sight.

But the Democratic-led HEROES Act is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate and faces a veto threat from President Donald Trump, who has lashed out at the election provisions. Congress passed $400 million in March for states to boost their election systems, but the prospects of more funding are unclear.

Election experts warn that states are dangerously under-equipped to handle the likely surge of mail-in voting in the Nov. 3 presidential contest and facilitate in-person voting in a hazardous environment. Without more assistance, some experts say the U.S. is hurtling toward a potential disaster that could bring about a delayed or disputed election result.

“There is a real significant risk to the integrity of the election if we don’t invest now in our election infrastructure,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “We’re going to see large-scale disenfranchisement, delays and meltdowns.”

In a country riven by political tribalism and expecting a close election, Weiser and others say the current path is a recipe for chaos that could prevent ballots from getting to voters on time and leave election officials with inadequate resources to process them, as states are already facing budget strains.

If the election, like the 2016 contest, comes down to a small number of closely divided states with a flood of mail-in ballots, there may not be a winner announced on election night. Worse yet, these experts say that a lack of clarity and resources to distribute and receive ballots on time may lead to legal disputes that challenge the legitimacy of the election itself.

'Trying to steal the election'

With Trump inflaming partisan tensions by claiming — without evidence — that his opponents are “trying to steal the election” from him, American democracy is already a tinderbox, and ill-prepared election systems could be a match.

Weiser said states will have to overhaul their election infrastructure to adjust to the primary methods by which ballots are cast, or “it’s not going to go well.” She said the $3.6 billion in the HEROES Act is in the ballpark of what's necessary to equip states in time.

“Failures of Congress to allocate the resources is not an option I want to contemplate. It would be really problematic for the health of our democracy and the health of the public,” Weiser said. “The scale of the challenge would be overwhelming.”

Fifty-one percent of voters say they're likely to vote by mail this fall, according to a Monmouth national poll released last week. If so, that would be a huge increase from 2016. Surveys show Americans registering high interest in the race between Trump and apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed the House legislation as “aspirational” and said this week it’s not clear if or when the Senate would take up another round of coronavirus relief. A McConnell aide said the GOP leader believes states should run their own elections free of federal mandates and noted that Congress approved $400 million in assistance in the CARES Act.

Arguing against the bill on the House floor on Friday, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said, "Changing election laws won't speed up developments of treatments or cures."

Matthew Weil, the director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said numerous states are moving to expand absentee voting so Americans can cast mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re going to see more vote-by-mail in this presidential election than we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “The $400 million that’s been appropriated [in the CARES Act that passed in March] can be helpful here but it’s not anywhere near enough.”

Some states might need to change their rules to count votes on time. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, for instance, absentee ballots cannot begin to be processed until Election Day. If mail-in voting is the primary method, "it’s going be a long wait from two pretty key swing states in determining the outcome," Weil said.

'Policymakers must act now'

Weil said states need to set up clear rules for voters on how mail-in ballots can be counted and the resources to process them. He said it will be a challenge to print huge numbers of ballots and obtain the necessary envelopes and postage. They'll also have to purchase the high-speed scanners needed to process them efficiently in a market where demand will probably exceed supply.

While there’s likely to be in-person voting, the election will also face new hurdles. Apart from the challenges of social distancing, who will man the polls? Election workers are not easy to find in ordinary times. Where will voting be held? Schools and churches may not want thousands of people coming in and out of their facilities during a deadly pandemic.

A Bipartisan Policy Center report co-authored by Weil and released this week estimated that more than half of all ballots cast in the presidential election will be mailed in. In 2016, 5.9 percent voted by mail, and another 17.7 percent voted absentee, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The BPC report recommended that states reduce requirements and hurdles for voters to obtain and cast a mail-in ballot, as well as streamline processes for verifying signatures and counting them.

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It concluded that time is short and that “policymakers must act now to provide every voter a safe and secure means of casting a ballot in November.” The report described Wisconsin's presidential primary election on April 7 as a cautionary tale as the system lacked the personnel and equipment to process the high volume of mail-in ballot requests in time.

Weiser echoed those concerns.

“If the system buckled at a 35 percent turnout,” she said, “imagine the kinds of troubles that we will see at a 70 percent turnout.”