Report counsels reforms to guard against election meltdown

By: - May 5, 2020 7:51 pm
Voting Cancelled sign via Flickr

Voting Cancelled sign via Flickr

Political polarization and intense partisanship in media and social media have laid the groundwork for distrust about the fairness of the 2020 elections, and the COVID-19 pandemic seems likely to escalate those problems.

Those are the conclusions of a new report released last week from a group of academics and voting-rights advocates, recommending a series of steps to shore up confidence and integrity in the nation’s election systems before the November presidential elections.

The report, “Fair Elections During a Crisis,” was produced by the Ad Hoc Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy and grew out of a February conference organized by some of the authors and that also included journalists and state elections officials. It is sponsored by the University of California-Irvine’s Jack W. Peltason Center for the Study of Democracy with foundation support.

“Although a decade ago concerns about peaceful transitions of power were less common, Americans can no longer take for granted that election losers will concede a closely fought election after election authorities (or courts) have declared a winner,” the report states.

Marquette University Professor Julia Azari
Julia Azari, Marquette University

The conference upon which the report was based was scheduled long before the COVID-19 crisis hit and even months before the disease itself had been identified, says Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee who was part of the 25-member group that produced the document. At the time it took place, the sort of election-disrupting crises on people’s minds ran more in the direction of sudden natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes. But in drafting the report, the authors, led by Rick Hasen of the University of California-Irvine law school, took COVID-19 into account and tailored recommendations to reflect the pandemic’s impact on the country.

The report makes recommendations in four broad areas:

  • Election law: improving access and security for absentee and provisional ballots; advance planning by states for emergencies; giving voters a wide range of options for voting during the COVID-19 pandemic; developing a non-partisan set of standard protocols to resolve a variety of disputes that might cause uncertainty in the outcome of the presidential election.
  • Media: public information projects to give voters accurate information about the vote-counting process; nonprofit training and coverage-planning assistance to media outlets and reporters about how to cover election results to ensure greater accuracy and less confusion for the public.
  • Politics and Norms: Adequate funding for the increased costs of voting by mail and of safety precautions; an independent, bipartisan Election Crisis Commission to take effect well in advance of the election that would encourage core democratic norms and resolve post-election disputes if needed; a collective embrace of “the democratic principle that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, should be able to vote in a fair election with accurate vote counting”; a collective embrace by social media leaders, election officials and government of principles already in federal laws that ban targeting voters by race or ethnic background to suppress or dilute the vote.
  • Technology: As much as possible, uniform adoption by states of paper ballots or electronic voter machines that produce a verifiable record; resilient election systems that furnish enough ballots and election machinery so that every eligible voter can cast a ballot without difficulty; verified internet sites for all state election systems; regularly monitored and audited state voter registration databases.

Azari says the organizing group strove for a consensus that would address concerns about election legitimacy across partisan lines, a challenge in light of the sharply different framing that liberals and Democrats bring to the issue compared to Republicans and conservatives.

“This is very much not about one team or the other and very much about ideas that are necessary for democracy to take place,” Azari tells the Wisconsin Examiner.

“The bottom line here is the emphasis on capacity in the report” — a robust machinery by which to ensure all eligible voters can vote and that elections produce reliable and clear results, she says. “That is really important — the resources that it takes to have a free and fair election, and the fact that those values were widely perceived by people of various political stripes. These are core American values held by everyone.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.