‘I just don’t trust the system anymore’: Voters on edge as election nears

The 2020 election season is like no other as Americans prepare to cast their ballot in a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread unemployment and attacks on the integrity of the vote itself. Lines of voters wrapped around a Fulton County precinct in the June primary. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder
Battle for the Ballot, a special project of States Newsroom
This is the first in a series of stories looking at voters’ concerns and voting issues in the 2020 election. Tomorrow: Election hacks target more than machines; ballot security at risk. Plus: Voter fraud myth persists despite constant failure to prove claims.

WASHINGTON—Widespread anxiety and confusion around voting, compounded by the pandemic.

A vastly underfunded and decentralized electoral system that could take days and possibly weeks to certify results. 

Attempts to suppress voting, interfere with elections and cast doubt on the integrity of mail-in ballots — including by none other than the president. 

These are but a few of the worries consuming U.S. voters in an unprecedented election year marked by more than 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, ongoing civil unrest over centuries of racial oppression and widespread unemployment. 

The most disturbing outcome could emerge after the votes are counted if President Donald Trump rejects the results and resists a peaceful transfer of power. The American public is caught between fear of catastrophe and a yearning to believe democracy will triumph.

Experts and elected officials urge calm and faith in a system that’s performed under stress before, but the nation is on edge. “I have always felt confident that my vote counted, whether or not my side won,” said Dana Westmark, a 57-year-old real estate agent in Sarasota, Fla. “I am concerned now, reading the daily news stories about interference, how we might be sidelined by forces beyond our control.”

Some agree with Westmark and are raising alarms that the country’s highly ranked election system may not be up to the task. A main fear is that a protracted certification process will yield inconclusive results on Election Day and the weeks beyond, which could spur an intense and partisan legal battle and public protests.  

Rick Hasen, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of Election Meltdown, says the country is “very poorly positioned” to resolve societal conflict in the wake of a closely contested election, and the U.S. Constitution and federal election law offer little detailed guidance on the subject.

At the same time, many are stressing confidence in what they characterize as a strong — if imperfect — system that dates back nearly two-and-a half centuries and has overcome grave threats

Casting ballots is certainly more bewildering and time-consuming this year. Accessing polling places and drop boxes is tougher. And tallies will take longer than usual, but the results, experts said, will likely be sound enough to accept.

Yet misinformation around voting is as old as the republic itself, and confusion around voting practices and processes — which vary from state to state and even county to county — is not uncommon. Turnout is often relatively low, faith in the system is relatively weak and countless voters aren’t able to overcome barriers to the franchise.

Tina Medina

“I’m not as worried about my vote not counting,” said Tina Medina, an author and businesswoman in Kansas. “I am worried that voter participation is going to be low. We have to vote for those Latino voters that can’t vote or aren’t registered.”

People with felony convictions are barred from voting in many states, as are some Americans with mental health conditions, permanent legal residents and citizens in U.S. territories. Black and brown voters have been denied their rights throughout U.S. history, and, despite passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, voter suppression persists. 

The Voting Rights Alliance identifies more than five dozen forms of suppression, including long lines, proof-of-citizenship requirements and a lack of polling sites on tribal reservations and college campuses. Such tactics are often hidden but sometimes as in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race come into full view. 

“No election is perfect,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a democracy reform group in Washington, D.C. “There are always problems with election administration. Our goal is always to administer an election in a way that disenfranchises the least amount of people.”

An Election Day like none other

Yet the system’s imperfections are especially glaring this year.

Voters are under tremendous strain, as is the country’s fragmented election infrastructure. Many will use absentee or mail-in ballots out of fears of infection by the coronavirus, but others will stick with what they know.

“I just don’t trust the mail to get there,” said Mary Lou Fox, a senior from Montgomery County, Md. “My husband does. I don’t.”

Bobby Hall, a 72-year-old retiree from Richmond, Va., is planning to vote in person. “That’s the way I’m used to doing it,” he said.

Many poll workers are sitting this year out, and certain polling places, such as those at schools, libraries and other public spaces, are closed. That means registrars must find and rent substitutes and hire and train workers at a time when state and local governments face massive revenue shortfalls. 

Voting in person requires gathering indoors, often in crowds, the conditions that can lead to the virus’ spread. Public health experts “are quite concerned on the impact of the pandemic on Election Day,” said Dr. Jeff Engel, senior adviser with the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

Bash Arii, 20, a first-time voter and student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., plans to cast an absentee ballot because voting in person isn’t worth the health risk. “Even if it doesn’t count, I’d rather deal with that than getting a virus and possibly dying from it,” he said.

Expectations have to be adjusted for Election Day, too. A nation used to seeing speedy results will likely have to wait days or weeks as mail-in ballots are counted. News media could deepen misunderstanding by declaring winners before results are certified or by characterizing tabulation as a “delay” or something ominous rather than as a normal part of the process.

It worries voters. “If the results look one way, and by the time everything is counted it looks different, I’m concerned about the implications people take from that,” said Jill Clary, 57, of Bellevue, Penn. She said she plans to vote by mail and drop her ballot off herself at the county courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

Another wrinkle: Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, which could mean their party’s nominee — former Vice President Joe Biden — picks up scads of votes after Election Day. Such a “blue shift” scenario could cause Trump and his supporters to call late-counted votes — and ultimately the results — into question.

On top of that, mail delivery has slowed, thanks to sweeping changes put in place this summer by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally and GOP megadonor. Some changes have been suspended, but many fear the postal service won’t be able to quickly process a surge of absentee ballots.

“The more I learn about the postmaster general, the more worried I get,” said Patricia Helfrich, 71, of Baltimore, Md., who has applied for an absentee ballot. 

Howard Garrett

 “I’m showing up to the polls on the first day of early voting. With all the voter suppression that is going on from the current state administration in regard to mail in voting, closing polling sites and purging voter records, it’s my obligation to show up,’’ said Howard Garrett, 27, of Franklin, Tenn. “I’m also doing everything I can to ensure my community has all the resources they need to be able to vote.”

Trump, meanwhile, has mounted a messaging offensive including in the first presidential debate against mail-in ballots, falsely and repeatedly claiming they will lead to “fraudulent” results.

Numerous independent studies and government reviews conclude that voter fraud, including mail-in voting, is extremely rare, according to The New York Times. “The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud,” Ben Ginsberg, a retired GOP election lawyer, wrote in a recent column in The Washington Post. “Elections are not rigged.”

But that hasn’t stopped Trump from disparaging mail-in voting and eroding trust. “Up until the tweets this year, this has been a nonpartisan issue,” said Vote at Home Institute CEO Amber McReynolds. “I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to fact check the attorney general or the president, but I’ve had to do that because they’ve stated false information about the voting process.”

Breckyn Turner

“I am a little worried about my mail-in vote not counting,” said Breckyn Turner, a freshman at the University of Kansas. “But for the most part I think it’s a little less pressure than voting in person. Voting in person was intimidating.”

An ‘infodemic’ spreads

The president’s lies aren’t limited to balloting processes. He and his allies have also spread disinformation about his political opponents and liberal groups and tacitly endorsed right-wing conspiracy theories

The “infodemic” — which experts say is driven more by conservatives — is spreading, thanks to social media, “fake news,” false political ads and information laundering. It is also becoming much more sophisticated, as social media and search algorithms seamlessly integrate bad information into good, and as foreign adversaries jump in. 

Russian intelligence likely learned from 2016 and its efforts will be better disguised this year, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in September at a University of Pennsylvania virtual panel. This year, Russia is amplifying U.S. content more than generating its own, capitalizing on existing divisions within the U.S. electorate, experts say, and other adversaries, like China and Iran, are joining in, according to a POLITICO article on a State Department report.

Election Day is still weeks away, but disinformation campaigns have already succeeded in destabilizing the electorate. “Plenty of doubt has been seeded,” said Aimee Rinehart, deputy director of First Draft News, an organization that combats misinformation.

Nearly half of voters doubt that votes will be accurately counted, up from about a third four years ago, according to a recent poll

Officials at the national, state and federal levels have been working since 2016 to prepare for disinformation this year. 

The National Association of Secretaries of State, a Washington-based advocacy group representing the officeholders that oversee elections in most states, is urging voters to get information about voting directly from election offices.

But leaders have acknowledged they’re unlikely to succeed this time.

“Do I think, through the good-hearted efforts of secretaries of state around the country to get this message out, we’re going to be able to penetrate millions and potentially even billions of dollars’ worth of efforts at mis- and disinformation? No,” said New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the president of NASS. Still, talking about the issue is a step in the right direction, she added.

COVID-19 complications

With the pandemic still raging in the U.S., even as it’s been controlled in many other countries, and a majority of voters disapproving of Trump’s response, public health issues could spark a significant uptick in turnout.

Research shows a connection between increased voter participation and better health outcomes, Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the former Minnesota health commissioner and past president of the Association of State and Territorial Health officials, wrote in July.

“Not voting is a health problem,” said Jeanne Ayers, senior adviser at VoteSAFE Public Health, a bipartisan coalition working to promote COVID-safe voting practices, and former Wisconsin health commissioner.

Meg Schneider

Meg Schneider, 57, of Coralville, Iowa, usually goes to the polls but was reconsidering because she didn’t want to expose her partner, who has bladder cancer, to COVID-19. Now, after news about postal service woes, she’s thinking about voting in person. “I just don’t trust the system any more. I figured the only way to make sure my vote will count is showing up during early voting when hopefully there will be fewer people,” she said.

There’s no data to show voters’ virus fears will substantially lower turnout in an election, said Mindy Finn, the CEO of Citizen Data. But officials worry it could be another factor undermining voter trust.

“One of the risks at this point in time is that the public may lose confidence in the ability to vote safely,” Ayers said. 

Though experts and election officials say they need more federal funding, they have used some to educate voters about vote-by-mail, train poll workers to safely administer an election during a pandemic and purchase personal protective equipment.

A robust and trusted vote-by-mail system could provide an alternative, and Ayers, Ehlinger, Engel and others are encouraging that option. But not all states have made that available, and it’s not widespread enough to be a panacea, Engel said. 

Marian Weidner, 37, of Minneapolis, said she’s planning to vote in person early in the morning on Election Day. “If I can vote in person and decrease pressure on the mail service, even if my ballot would get there on time … I feel like it would maybe facilitate other people’s ballots getting in on time if there’s more delays,” she said. 

Where is Congress?

The $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Congress passed in March contained $400 million in emergency election funding, far short of the $2 billion elections administrators requested and not enough to support the 10,000 election offices around the country, McReynolds said. It’s “kind of an insult” that Congress provided $60 billion in loans and grants to the airline industry in the same law, she added.

“Part of the reason that election offices are so lacking in resources is because our elected leaders in Congress didn’t get their jobs done,” she said. 

Lawmakers of both parties have taken steps to combat disinformation, introducing bills to impose consequences for election interference and increase transparency of online political ads. And Congress has approved about $1.2 billion in election-related spending since 2018, including the $400 million approved in March. 

But disinformation bills haven’t gone anywhere, and money Congress has appropriated is far short of what’s needed, said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and elections expert, in an interview with States Newsroom.

The U.S. House in May passed a coronavirus relief package that includes $3.6 billion in election related-funding, an amount she said is based on “expert analyses of what was actually required.” But the GOP-controlled Senate has not taken up the measure — which is tangled in a standoff between the House and Senate — or more targeted election security measures. 

“The Senate has basically done nothing,” Lofgren said. “Why they wouldn’t want to secure the election from foreign interference or to provide adequate resources for technical security issues is just inexplicable.” 

Lofgren, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, doesn’t expect the U.S. Department of Justice or its chief, Attorney General Bill Barr, to protect voting rights and respond to allegations of voter suppression either. “I have very low expectations that the Justice Department will follow its obligation under the law.” 

But others are stepping in. The Center for Tech and Civic Life, for example, is distributing $250 million in local election grants from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. And some states are beefing up mail-in-voting despite tight budgets. Four additional states and the District of Columbia will mail ballots to all their voters this year, bringing the total to 10. 

Tycho Dwelis

“The sentiment among most people my age, I think — and something that I feel very deeply as well — is that I don’t really feel like my vote matters,” said Tycho Dwelis, 26, a Colorado Springs-based freelance artist and writer. “In the system that we have now, a duopoly is encouraged, and you have to vote for the lesser of two evils, even if you like an independent party.”

Of the 14 states that require an excuse to vote by mail, 10 have ruled COVID-19 qualifies. And some others are providing prepaid postage for ballots this year. 

But Congress is not expected to take additional action to secure elections at the federal level this year, and, even if it did, it would be too late to have a major impact on this election, Lofgren said. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, doesn’t appear concerned. He argues that money isn’t an obstacle, noting that existing election-related funding approved by Congress has not yet been fully spent, and dismisses worries about the integrity of the elections and the future of democracy as “hysterical pronouncements.”

Into the courts

Independent experts expect pitched political and court battles — likely from Democrat-aligned groups challenging ballot restrictions and Republicans seeking to disqualify mail-in ballots — this fall. Reuters reports more than 250 election lawsuits have already been filed. “Every ingredient is there” for societal conflict over the election results, whomever wins, Rinehart said. “I just don’t see [a] positive conclusion to 2020.”

That could lead to protests or worse. “You could be looking at modern-day Minutemen, if you will, who are ready to make sure that the candidate they support is going to be in office,” Rinehart said. Indeed, gun sales have surged this year, armed groups are organizing protests and Trump has backed armed insurrection in the past. 

If legal challenges wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, some fear Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett could hand the election to Trump if she is confirmed before Election Day to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, further delegitimizing the system and widening social divides.

Still, many experts are expressing faith in the system, and voters are, too. Jeff Beckers, a Republican from Mechanicsburg, Penn., says he’s “very confident” in voting by mail. “I voted by mail in the [state’s June 2] primary and had zero issues and already requested (and been approved) for the mail-in ballot for the general,” he said.

Vulnerabilities exist, said Cris Landa, interim co-director of the nonpartisan Verified Voting, but steps are being taken to mitigate them, such as increasing the number of paper-based elections, implementing post-election audits and working with election officials to ensure rigorous post-election processes. “There are so many different ways that election officials work on protecting the vote,” she said.

Lofgren agreed, noting that secretaries of state and local registrars of voters will do the “very best they can” to hold a robust election — the standard that has been in place throughout U.S. history, which has seen its share of disputed elections and electoral strife, including violent conflict

 In a democracy,” Albert said, “we accept that we are doing our best and there will be a certain small amount of errors that do not change the outcome, and we still accept the results.” 

Contributing to this report were John L. Micek, Elizabeth Hardison and Stephen Caruso of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star; Noah Taborda of the Kansas Reflector; Danielle J. Brown of the Florida Phoenix; Bennett Leckrone of Maryland Matters; Faith Miller of Colorado Newsline; Stanley Dunlap of the Georgia Recorder; Graham Moomaw of the Virginia Mercury; Rilyn Eischens of the Minnesota Reformer; Linh Ta of the Iowa Capital Dispatch; Evan Popp of Maine Beacon; Greg Childress of NC Policy Watch; C.J. Moore of the Michigan Advance; Jake Zuckerman of the Ohio Capital Journal and Holly McCall of the Tennessee Lookout.