Potential Election Crisis Looms in November
Viewers who watched the final moments of last week’s presidential debate got a glimpse of the potential crisis facing the United States in November. President Trump sharply criticized expanded voting-by-mail, warned that it will result in widespread fraud and mistakes, and committed to challenging results he deemed unfair. Former Vice President Joe Biden dismissed potential concerns about fraud and other problems resulting from absentee balloting.
As with much of the conversation during the debate, the truth was somewhere in the middle. Rapidly expanding voting-by-mail, combined with weak state infrastructure, increases the potential for mistakes, ballot harvesting and other forms of election fraud, as well as possibilities for rejecting or disputing ballots. But while these problems are real, an even more serious danger may be Americans on both sides buying into the partisan rhetoric and losing faith in our Constitutional order and the Rule of Law.
While most Americans may think of rigged elections as something that happens in other countries, historically, the United States has had its share of problems. Lyndon B. Johnson, before becoming president, famously lost his first Senate race in 1941 due to ballot fraud, and then employed those same tactics to win election to the Senate in 1948. In 1876, widespread disputes over fraud deadlocked the outcome, leading to a Constitutional crisis that required a national commission to resolve. Allegations of fraud still hover over the 1960 election that propelled John F. Kennedy to victory over Richard Nixon.
More recently, an investigative report by Committee on House Administration Ranking Member Rodney Davis alleged multiple incidents where ballot fraud was weaponized in California to change election outcomes. In North Carolina, a new election was ordered following a voter fraud scandal in 2016. Additionally, a recent video by conservative activist group Project Veritas alleged expansive voter fraud in Minnesota. Now, because of COVID-19, the main focus of the discussion about election fraud is focused on expanded absentee balloting and ballot harvesting.
Election fraud entails several different kinds of activity, discussed at length in a recent paper I co-authored. In particular, illegal ballot harvesting is where a third party coerces someone into completing their absentee ballot a particular way, fraudulently completes someone else’s ballot, or takes someone’s completed ballot and deliberately fails to submit it to election officials. But there can be legitimate instances of third-party involvement, such as when friends or family are genuinely helping out elderly relatives.
In the short run, public vigilance and proper state and local election official oversight is our best remedy to prevent and spot ballot harvesting. We should respond by seeking ways to constructively protect the upcoming election and challenge the results in the courts if necessary, rather than undermining the legitimacy of the process in advance. In other words, if we want to avert politicization and undermining of our system of government and the Rule of Law, we should follow Ronald Reagan’s dictum of “trust, but verify.”
In the longer term, more needs to be done to help election officials mitigate the risk of fraud, define and punish abuses of the system, and improve the process. This will require policy change at both the federal and state level.
In the coming weeks, expect to hear more examples of these types of incidents and other problems with absentee balloting in the news. But, we should put it in context. According to a Washington Post review of nearly 90 voting lawsuits, judges are “broadly skeptical” about overly expansive and politicized arguments around mail-in-voting.
While this partisan debate carries on, it is also important to recognize that foreign adversaries are working hard to exploit divisions in our country, including by spreading distrust of the electoral process to undermine confidence in American democracy. For example, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security recently warned that foreign adversaries were planning to use disinformation to exploit Americans’ distrust with the election and democratic process.
While real and serious, ballot harvesting is unlikely to tip the outcome of the national election. And there are legal mechanisms in place to challenge election fraud if it occurs. There are also some reasons to think it could even benefit Republicans if more Democrats vote absentee.
The United States is facing many challenges in 2020. Holding an election during a global pandemic and maintaining public confidence in the democratic process is our newest test. Americans from all walks of life must do their part to help secure the election and protect the nation’s democratic process.
Sean Roberts is chief technologist at Lincoln Network, a nonprofit founded in 2014 with a mission to help bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and DC and promote a more perfect union between technology and democracy.