States and localities are scrambling to pour $150 billion in federal CARES Act dollars into the COVID-19-ravaged economy before the end-of-year deadline, raising concerns that the money may not go to the recipients most in need. If states don’t allocate the money by Dec. 30, they must return it to the U.S. Treasury. That means businesses from ski resorts to football stadiums, restaurants to laundries — as well as people behind on their rent and utility payments — are being urged in public service announcements and public statements to apply for the money. Critics and some state officials say t...
On his way out of the White House, President Donald Trump is taking one last swipe at the Affordable Care Act, proposing to allow states to opt out of the Obamacare exchanges where millions of Americans enroll in health insurance plans. If states choose this potential new option, residents would no longer have access to a one-stop shop for health insurance. Instead, they would have to find their way to private insurance brokers or individual carriers. They also wouldn’t have access to impartial advisers, so-called navigators, to assist them in making their choices. The rule, proposed on Thanks...
The disinformation scenario that local election officials feared months ago has come true: President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud have been picked up by many state and local Republican officials across the country, and polls now show that more than two-thirds of GOP voters believe the 2020 election was neither free nor fair.Ten state attorneys general signed an amicus brief two weeks ago supporting the president’s unsuccessful bid to block an extension for mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. And state lawmakers from South Carolina wrote a letter in support of court challenges that h...
Since the summer, the simmering state and local debate over reopening K-12 public schools has reflected the nation’s deep partisan divide on the coronavirus, with Republicans favoring openings and Democrats more likely to support a cautious approach.But new scientific evidence showing that in-person learning has resulted in relatively few outbreaks of COVID-19 — combined with growing concerns about learning and social development setbacks for kids — may be closing that chasm.For now, the national COVID-19 surge that is overwhelming hospitals in some states has stalled any further movement towa...
LANCASTER, Pa. — With one envelope slicer, three ballot scanners and around 175 people, it took election officials roughly 37 consecutive hours to process 91,000 mail-in ballots in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.“It’s taking a little longer to scan than we had hoped,” said Randall Wenger, chief clerk of the county’s Board of Elections, speaking over the click-click-click of the envelope slicer around noon Wednesday, “but we’re getting it done.”As many other states wrapped up counting record numbers of mail-in ballots, the tabulating in many counties in the Keystone State continued for days aft...
In the presidential election four years ago, there were fewer free-standing ballot drop boxes, and they were uncontroversial. This year, as officials in many states expand use of the boxes amid a pandemic, they have become another flashpoint in the controversy over voting access.Supporters of the expanded use of drop boxes say they make voting easier for people who are afraid to vote in person and fear their absentee ballots won’t be tallied if they send them through the mail. Opponents say they are worried about ballot security, despite little evidence that drop boxes are any less secure than...
PORTLAND, Ore. — When wildfires threatened rural Oregon communities last month, another unwelcome phenomenon accompanied them: armed vigilantes blocking entry to outsiders, based on false rumors that protesters had not only started the fires, but also were there to loot the evacuated homes.Throughout the West and beyond, in a summer marked by protests seeking racial justice, armed vigilantes also have shown up at Black Lives Matter events in small towns and big cities alike. Their presence in some places has the tacit support of law enforcement or even local elected officials.Now, experts who ...
WASHINGTON — California is supposed to burn.Before settlers populated the region in the 1800s, about 5 to 12% of the land that now makes up the Golden State caught fire each year — more than has burned so far in 2020, the most destructive year in modern history. Some of the historic fires were caused by lightning and others were set by Native Americans as a land-management tool, but they mostly burned with low intensity and touched much of the state with great regularity.But after more than a century of aggressive fire suppression, California’s vegetation has grown much denser than the fire-ad...
WASHINGTON — A Trump administration plan to use the census to exclude from congressional representation immigrants who are living here illegally might inadvertently exclude many U.S. citizens living under the radar in states such as Alaska, New Mexico and West Virginia.Last week, a federal appeals court in New York blocked the administration’s strategy, ruling that “the President does not have the authority to exclude illegal aliens” from congressional representation since the Constitution calls for “total population” as the basis for apportioning seats. But the ruling allowed federal work on ...
As the pandemic shut down restaurants this spring, California farmers and ranchers saw their markets drop by half, leaving many with fields full of crops but no buyers. And as millions of people lost their jobs, the state’s food banks needed to triple their food supply.Fortunately for California, the state had a long-standing initiative tailor-made to help with these twin crises. The Farm to Family program, run by the California Association of Food Banks and the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture, pays farmers to send surplus produce to food banks.“All the farmers in California that we...
WASHINGTON — Karen Reyes, who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Austin, Texas, worries about her first-grade pupils who will be learning online this fall. She’s concerned that virtual learning is harder for younger, special needs children, especially those who may not have as much support at home as students in more affluent communities.“It has brought out a lot of the inequities in our district, especially in special education,” Reyes said of the distance learning program.In her school, 93% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to a city estimate.“Eit...
After a presidential primary season plagued by long lines, confusion over mail-in voting and malfunctioning equipment, election experts are increasingly concerned about the resiliency of American democracy in the face of a global pandemic.
With four months until the presidential election, the litany of unresolved issues could block some voters from casting ballots and lead many citizens to distrust the outcome of one of the most pivotal races of their lifetimes.
There is widespread concern among voting activists, experts and elections officials that it will take further federal investment in local election systems, massive voter education campaigns and election administrators’ ingenuity to prevent a disaster come November.
“The coronavirus has really laid bare the cracks in our system,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.
Even before the pandemic, Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, said he was worried about the state of U.S. elections. He warned in his recent book Election Meltdown about the effects that misinformation, administrative incompetence and voter suppression efforts would have on the 2020 presidential election.
Now, to add to all those problems, there is COVID-19, which further destabilizes voting. He, like many other election experts interviewed by Stateline, said he is worried about November.
“The best-case scenario for us is that key elections are not close,” he said, “because we are going to have problems.”
The troubles ahead of the presidential election include the inconsistent mail-in ballot system, voter safety at polling locations and lingering security gaps targeted by malicious foreign and domestic groups emboldened by the 2016 presidential election.
Mail-In Ballot Issues
Millions of voters turned to mail-in ballots as a safe alternative to voting in person during the pandemic-riddled primary. But in states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and in the District of Columbia, thousands of voters requested absentee ballots from local election officials and never received them.
Stateline StoryJune 3, 2020
Trump’s Attacks on Vote-by-Mail Worry Some Election Officials
States were unprepared for the record numbers of absentee ballot requests, said Hannah Fried, national campaign director of All Voting is Local, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Leadership Conference Education Fund that helps register people of color and young people.
In many of those states, officials found it difficult to go from producing and processing thousands of mail-in ballots to contending with millions of them because of COVID-19. They lacked the training, equipment, supply chain and staff to handle the increase, she said.
Local officials must set up ways to get ballots to voters, provide for their easy return and allow voters to know their ballots will be counted, she said.
“It was overwhelming for officials and voters alike in the beginning,” Fried said. “But November is different, and we have time.”
But training and equipment cost money, said Cris Landa, program director at the election security group Verified Voting. While Congress allocated $400 million under the CARES Act for election administration earlier this year, it is unclear whether it will allocate more funds before the presidential election. But money must come soon, Landa said, or jurisdictions won’t have time to implement changes.
“Elections are woefully underfunded as is,” she said. “The need is there for more election funding. It’s hard not to paint such a stark, worrisome picture.”
Voters in some states had to contend with other barriers to voting by mail, such as requirements for a witness signature or voter ID — difficult tasks during a pandemic when people are confined to their homes. Proponents say these measures prevent voter fraud.
In Oklahoma, Republican leaders enacted a law that requires absentee ballots be notarized, while Republican leaders in Tennessee and Texas have fought efforts to make the coronavirus pandemic a legitimate excuse for requesting an absentee ballot.
Stateline UpdateJune 10, 2020
Georgia Primary a ‘Catastrophe,’ Voting Rights Advocates Say
County clerks have rejected absentee ballots at higher rates this election season in some communities of color, sometimes for reasons as simple as a mismatched or absent signature on the ballot envelope, said Kristen Clark, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She’s trying to figure out why.
“Something is not right,” she said.
Voters unable or unwilling to vote by mail turned to traditional polling places. And when they got there, many were met by more barriers.
Polling Place Problems
The lines in the Atlanta area stretched for more than four hours in some majority-Black locations on the June 9 primary day. New voting machines were not working, poll workers had not been trained to use the new equipment, polling locations opened late and precincts ran out of paper backups.
In the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, voters with disabilities, limited English proficiency and unreliable mail service rely on polling places to cast their ballots.
But polling locations were cut throughout the country, while thousands of poll workers refused to serve because of health concerns.
In Wisconsin, local election officials drastically reduced the number of polling locations across the state. The city of Milwaukee had five polling locations — down from 182 in 2016. A Brennan Center analysis shows this contributed to reduced voter turnout.
Like Georgia, many states also debuted new voting systems this year, which led to confusion when poll workers, untrained because of the pandemic, had to navigate unfamiliar voting machines. Already before the pandemic, equipment issues caused massive disruptions in this year’s Iowa caucuses and California primary.
And then there’s the issue of safety: How do election officials keep polling places clean during a pandemic, especially as protective equipment is often hard to come by as states and businesses reopen across the country?
Some election officials have gotten creative. Harris County, Texas, will provide each voter with a finger cover to use on voting machines and a face mask if they need one. The Houston-area county of 2.4 million registered voters also will equip poll workers with masks, face shields and disinfectant wipes.
“Putting these safeguards in place has been no simple task,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, “but they’re necessary.”
Hollins is one of several local and state election officials backing a new report by the nonprofit Voter Protection Corps on how to run safe in-person voting options ahead of November. It recommends not consolidating neighborhood polling places, recruiting and training poll workers and expanding early voting.
Safeguarding the health of voters isn’t the only security issue facing elections, however.
Election Security Issues
The threat of foreign interference in U.S. elections remains, including disinformation and hacking campaigns by the Russian government and others. Local election offices remain susceptible to email phishing attempts and website hacks that could penetrate state voter registration databases and other critical systems.
And the coronavirus adds security challenges. New online state systems for requesting absentee ballots could be vulnerable without proper protections, said Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Meanwhile, most election officials have been working remotely since the outbreak, using home networks that lack the firewalls of their offices and are more exposed to cybersecurity threats.
Stateline StoryMay 8, 2020
Postal Service's Struggles Could Hurt Mail-In Election
Federal security officials, from the National Security Agency to the National Guard, will work with state and local election officials throughout the coming months, providing on-the-ground assistance and recommending practices to avoid a potentially disastrous security breach.
Misinformation remains one of the biggest threats to U.S. elections, Hovland said. Clever editing of an online video or false information spread throughout social media could reach vast audiences.
“Any of those situations is ripe for disinformation or misinformation,” he said. “Unfortunately, 2020 was never going to be an easy election year. And now with COVID, we’re facing unprecedented challenges.”
Another factor that could damage voter confidence is a delay in reporting election results. Because of the expected volume of absentee ballots, voters should not expect complete race results on Election Night; it will take much longer to process and count votes. Election Night might turn into Election Week.
Delays in election results are not necessarily troublesome or nefarious, said U.C. Irvine’s Hasen. It shows election officials take the count seriously, he said. The question is how voters will react to those delays.
Hasen worries both domestic and foreign groups will try to undermine legitimacy and take advantage of delays. Malicious actors may spread false information about polling place locations, ways to register to vote, voting hours and the ability to vote online.
A candidate may, for example, declare victory before results are completely counted, he said, potentially delegitimizing the eventual results of the election among supporters.
Disinformation and misinformation targeted communities of color during the 2016 presidential campaign, and as much is expected again this year, said LaShawn Warren, executive vice president of government affairs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
In anticipation of this threat, several organizations like hers have pressured social media companies to add new warnings and labels on malicious or false election-related content. It is the responsibility of these companies, she said, to oversee what is being placed on their platforms.
“You don’t want to add to confusion,” she said. “You want to add a level of transparency and clarity. The way they have rolled out these policies is not thoughtful and rooted in truth.”
While Twitter has begun labeling false tweets, Facebook recently announced it would label all election-related content, without noting whether the content is false. Facebook says its policies protect free speech, but Warren said the company does not do enough to quell falsehoods, potentially keeping people from voting.
President Donald Trump’s continued and unsubstantiated attacks on mail-in voting, claiming without evidence that it would lead to massive voter fraud, also sows doubt in the election, she said.
While election experts are sounding the alarm ahead of November, they say there is still time for federal, state and local election authorities to prevent a disastrous presidential election.
U.S. elections are fragile, said Pérez at the Brennan Center. It will take the election administrators hustling for resources, planning and looking for solutions. It will take residents offering their storefronts for polling places, volunteering to be poll workers and helping register their neighbors to vote, she said.
“We are in the middle of a real challenge,” she said, “but there is a lot we can do between now and November to minimize harmful outcomes.”
If a hurricane bears down on Florida this summer, residents likely won’t be told to evacuate to the safety of a high school gymnasium or large civic building. Instead, they may be asked to download an app that assigns them to an open hotel room — a shelter from both the storm and the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak.State officials have mapped out all of Florida’s 5,000 hotels, along with the wind rating of each facility and whether it has a generator on hand. So far, they’ve persuaded 200 hotels to sign up to serve as shelters; they’re aiming to reach 1,000.Meanwhile, the state plans to work wit...
PORTLAND, Ore. — On a drizzly spring day in mid-May, potential grand jurors lined up 6 feet apart outside the Multnomah County Courthouse.Raincoats and umbrellas dripping, they filed one by one into the courthouse and through a metal detector, all the while maintaining appropriate social distance from court employees. Most visitors wore masks, which the court encouraged and made available for free but did not require. Nearly all court employees wore face coverings.Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, had issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 nearly two months before, and it...
WASHINGTON — The plan for a pandemic drone didn’t last long in Westport, Conn.Within days in late April, the police department of the coastal town outside New York City reversed course on using drone-mounted cameras to scan crowds for fevers and coughs.The department had said it would use the technology at beaches, train stations, recreation areas and shopping centers. Biometric readings would help the department understand population patterns and respond to potential health threats.Feedback from some of the town’s 28,000 residents was quick and laden with concern, Lt. Anthony Prezioso said, s...