Voting During a Pandemic: COVID-19 and the 2020 Election, Part 1

Published Jul 21, 2020

Voting rights expert Dr. Michael Latner explains how science can keep us safe when casting our votes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this episode
  • Colleen examines the complexities of voting during a pandemic
  • We look at lessons learned from states that have already voted during COVID-19
  • Mike debunks myths about voter fraud
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:49)
Intro (0:49-2:47)
Interview part 1 (2:47-10:48)
Break (10:48-12:10)
Interview part 2 (12:10-23:42)
This Week in Science History throw (23:42-23:48)
This Week in Science History (23:48-27:28)
Outro (27:28-28:30)

Related content
Show credits

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

How do we vote during a pandemic?

My own state, Massachusetts, held its primary before COVID-19 caused city-wide shutdowns. So while I haven’t seen the pandemic’s effect on voting firsthand, I did see coverage of the Wisconsin and Georgia primaries, where long lines and the sudden closure of polling stations left many voters shaken and disgruntled with the process. And you can hardly blame them. The past months have shown our country is not prepared for voting during a pandemic.

At least not yet.

So as November draws closer, there’s a question that’s become increasingly urgent: how can science help us avoid these failures in the presidential election?

We tackle this question with our guest Dr. Mike Latner, an Associate Professor in political science at California Polytechnic State University, and former Kendell Voting Rights Fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Mike is an expert in the scientific measures of integrity and bias in our electoral systems, so he has a lot to say about what the pandemic has done to our voting system. So much so that we just couldn’t fit it all into one episode.

So we’re doing a two’fer . . . a two-part podcast conversation about voting and COVID-19. This episode is Part One, and we dig into what certain states have done right or wrong in their primaries and what we can learn from those examples. We also talk about mail-in voting and voter fraud—two topics swimming in a sea of rumors—to learn what the research actually says. While we see in this episode that many things can go wrong and have gone wrong, Part Two will show us that a fair and safe election this November is still possible and that there are many things you and I can do now to make sure our states are ready.

Colleen: Mike, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Mike: Thanks so much for having me.

Colleen: There’s a collective angst right now about the election in November. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, we can’t predict where outbreaks will be, how bad they will be, and the pandemic/voting collision on Election Day is something we really need to be prepared for. So Mike, that’s where you come in. How will voting be affected by COVID-19?

Mike: Well, it's going to be affected in a number of ways, first of which is it's going to affect voter turnout. At the beginning of this year, based on surveys of voter intent and knowledge and excitability about the election, we were expecting 2020 to be a record turnout year. That in itself presents a number of challenges for election officials at the state and local level, just accommodating a massive surge in voter turnout. Now you add on top of that, a pandemic that is going to make voting in-person dangerous, and we're basically forcing people to risk their health to exercise their franchise, and we don't want to do that.

So that means that states need to come up with alternative methods of voting, such as vote by mail, so that people can vote from home. Which is not a problem for several states. Indeed, five states have some experience with universal vote-by-mail, most notably Washington and Oregon. But in many other states, including a number of battleground states, there's virtually no experience with vote-by-mail. So, you know, we're talking about 5 percent or less of the population typically votes by mail and those are often overseas and military voters who have to vote by mail if they're going to exercise their franchise.

And so we're talking about, on the one hand, a big challenge in terms of handling a surge of voters who are interested in turning out in what's going to be a historical election, and, at the same time, a huge behavioral shift in that we need to change the way that most Americans vote. And that's a massive challenge. That is both an infrastructure challenge as well as a public education challenge. And then on top of that, if it were just a matter of, you know, moving everyone to vote by mail, that would be a significant challenge in itself.

But for various reasons, whether it's access to residential mail or disability, tens of millions of Americans are going to still need to vote in-person. And so we need to make sure that people can vote safely and securely in-person without risking their health. And so that presents a whole new set of challenges for especially local election officials but state election officials as well, who don't have the experience and the training to create medically safe environments out of polling places. And so there's a myriad of challenges that we're presented with this election year.

Colleen: So let me just quickly ask, I mean, we've already seen some of the chaos with the Wisconsin, and the Georgia and other primary elections. So talk to me a little bit about what we saw there and what we've learned or can take away from those primaries to prepare us for November?

Mike: Sure. So the experience of holding a primary during a pandemic actually provides us with some really valuable lessons—mostly about what not to do. Sixteen states postponed their primaries as the pandemic began spreading across the United States and that was itself a legal challenge for many states. A few states, like Wisconsin, in particular, basically tried to postpone their election. The governor of Wisconsin attempted to do that. The state Supreme Court claimed that he did not have the power to unilaterally do that.

And so they ended up holding their election. Really, voters weren't sure whether they were going to have an election the day before the primary actually began. And so what you really had was a reactionary response from state and local election officials. You had a number of emergency precinct closures, a number of precincts in the City of Milwaukee were consolidated from 85 to 5, in the largest city in the state. The state was inundated with absentee ballot request, voters wanted to vote by mail.

The surge in vote by mail requests was so high that local election officials were unable to process all of those requests, and they didn't process them all on time. And so by the time the primary came around, you had thousands of absentee ballots that had never been delivered. That resulted in a Supreme Court challenge that resulted in many voters basically being forced—since the postmark date was not extended for those mail ballots, they hadn't received their ballots even though they requested them—and they were forced to decide whether or not to risk their health or to give up their vote.

Colleen: So what ended up happening?

Mike: So what we saw on election day were very long lines in Wisconsin, with the consolidated precincts, we had a lot of people who were in line for hours. That increased the exposure to the COVID virus. And we have at least one study that came out—the one comprehensive study from the National Economic Bureau of Research—that showed that two to three weeks after the date of the primary after election day, indeed there was a positive association with an increase in the rate of positive cases of COVID for counties that had more people per precinct showing up. And so we have some direct evidence that there is a direct link between the level of voter congestion on election day at polling places and the risk of the spread of the disease.

Similarly, in Georgia, you had a reactionary state election apparatus that was closing precincts and really struggling to process the requests for mail ballots, and you had similar results. Fewer precincts open, longer lines, and really people unnecessarily risking their health. And so what we learned from those two cases is that we want to be proactive. We need to provide the states with the infrastructure they need to process mail ballots and to count those mail ballots when they come in. We need to support the US Postal Service that becomes essentially a part of the chain of custody of mail ballots as we move people to vote by mail.

There are also a couple of good examples. So the state of Nebraska, for example, held their primary a couple weeks ago, and they had prepared to move people to vote by mail. They sent every eligible voter an application for an absentee ballot. There was a big public education campaign to inform people of the way that voting is changing during the primary. And they had relatively few problems on election day. Crucially, they didn't close very many precincts. So they didn't—even though they had fewer people voting in person, they had a massive surge of vote by mail just like Wisconsin. But they also were able to process people for in-person voting with relatively few problems. In part, because they had the number of voting machines, the number of polling places that they needed to have open, they also provided every polling worker with personal protection equipment. And so they ensured that the polling places were compliant with CDC health and sanitation guidelines. And they were able to pull off a primary with relatively few problems.


Colleen: So in Wisconsin and Georgia, they opened fewer polling places. That seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t you want more places open so that people are less crowded?

Mike: Yeah, so that's mainly a function of the practical constraints that local election officials are facing. So on the one hand, if you're moving everyone to vote by mail, then you're not going to need the sort of in-person infrastructure that you would normally have. And you don't want to assign poll workers to polling places where very few people are showing up because you don't want to risk the health of your public workers, either.

On the other hand, it is—and this is the real reason comes in terms of the constraints that we're seeing election officials facing—it's very hard to find poll workers. Poll workers are disproportionately elderly and retired people and they are most at risk of infection. So we don't want to put them in polling places. A number of polling places around the country tend to be, you know, senior centers and community buildings and places where high-risk populations might be close to other populations, so we want to avoid that. And that’s resulted in making it harder for election officials to actually find adequate polling places and places that are compliant with CDC health guidelines.

There's a lot of complexity there in terms of working out where polling places can be safely put up, and how long they can be put up. One of the additional requirements that we're looking for is for states to expand early voting. So we want early in-person voting at polling precincts. We're looking for, you know, two weeks would be great. The states could provide that. And the goal there is to flatten the curve on election day. So we don't want...if people need to vote in-person, we don't want everyone to show up on election day. We'd like to flatten out that curve so that people have a week or two weeks where they can vote in-person early.

The problem, of course, is finding a place that you can set up: either a private or commercial residence that can be set up for early voting. And those are hard to find, and it's making the job of election officials quite difficult. I would like to add, though, that there have been some innovations. Certainly, some policy innovations that we're encouraging, in the UCS reports are partnerships with private and commercial enterprises.

So you may have heard LeBron James this week is working with the NBA to encourage opening up stadiums as voting places. The Atlanta Hawks have already agreed to open up their stadium on election day as a massive voting place. And that's the kind of innovation that we really need because if we're going to practice social distancing, especially, it's really important that we're able to process voters efficiently. And in the places where that's hardest to do—and we know this from past research, and this is in the new UCS-UCLA Voting Rights lab report—is that the wait times and the longer that people wait in line are not distributed equally across the population.

Specifically, urban voters in densely populated districts, voters of color, voters with disabilities, they're more likely to experience problems at a polling place. They're more likely to experience longer wait times. And in many cases, these are the same populations that are at higher risk for COVID infection and the death rates are higher among these same populations. And so if we don't address these inequities in voter congestion, what we can expect is an amplification of the existing racial disparities and other disparities that we already see in COVID death rates.

Colleen: And you're talking about the report, “Protecting Public Health in the 2020 Elections,” is that right?

Mike: That's right.

Colleen: Right. So this is a new report that just came out that I was reading this morning before our conversation, and I highly recommend it. It's got some really great resources in it as well for people to look at where your state is. And you can also find things that you can do. I think it's interesting, you know, maybe we need to encourage young and healthy people to volunteer at polling places.

Mike: Oh, absolutely. And in fact, the Science Rising site has a tool— TurboVote has...

Colleen: I just did TurboVote this morning—

Mike: [crosstalk]

Colleen: —when I was looking at all the materials. I just went in there and I ordered up my ballot. I mean, I love going to the polls on election day, because I just think it's exciting to go there and do that but not this year.

Mike: Yeah, I feel the same way. But just like so much of our social lives has changed over the last few months, we have to do things differently this year because we should not be risking people's health to exercise the franchise.

And so we need to make these changes and these adjustments. And we know what to do. We know the cause of long lines and voter congestion. And so what we need to do is implement the tools that we can use to reduce voter congestion and still provide, you know, a robust voting experience.

Colleen: Why is mail-in voting so controversial? I feel like we have science that supports that mail-in ballots—that they work. Why are they so controversial?

Mike: Okay, yeah, the question over the safety of vote by mail is something that has been, frankly, made a controversy. Because there are certain political figures that have been casting evidence-free claims about the dangers of vote-by-mail, specifically with regard to voter fraud. UCS and the UCLA voting rights project, along with the University of New Mexico School of Social Policy, collaborated on a report earlier this summer. And we actually look at all of the data available from the Heritage Foundation, which is itself a conservative think tank. So we're using the data that, you know, doesn't come from progressive sources or anything like that.

And, you know, we demonstrate pretty clearly that for the states that have moved to vote-by-mail, there's no evidence of significant increase in voter fraud, or election fraud more broadly. And when we look across states that have traditionally used a lot of vote-by-mail, what we find is that the danger if anything is that the rejection rates are higher. And by rejection rate, I mean the ballots that don't get counted. And part of that is a function of the signature requirement.

So when you vote by mail, typically you have your signature that's recorded on the voter registration list, and the signature that you sign on your mail ballot, that you return, the envelope is matched against that signature. And if those signatures don't match, then that ballot is not counted. And so what we actually see is that states that use a lot of vote-by-mail have higher ballot rejection rates if anything else.

I would also add that vote by mail is a way of providing a paper ballot. Every ballot, you know, has a physical reality to it that some types of voting don't have. And so in that sense, mail ballots actually add an additional layer of security. Particularly with regard to hacking and auditing, there is a verifiable ballot that can be checked.

Colleen: So how do you commit fraud with vote-by-mail?

Mike: Well, there are a couple of ways. Folks that are claiming that vote by mail is dangerous, typically make the case that the voters themselves are going to either be sent ballots when they shouldn't—that is, people that are not eligible to vote are going to be sent ballots, and then those votes will be counted when they shouldn't—or that there's going to be some kind of ballot stuffing where political campaigns might collect ballots that aren't filled out by voters and fill them out themselves.

And indeed, we do have evidence that this has occurred. I mean, voter fraud is a real thing. Most recently, there was a local election in New Jersey, where there were about 3,000 or so votes that were...the irregularity in the patterns of the votes being turned in revealed that there was a local election official engaged in election fraud.

And then in 2018, probably the most famous recent example was the North Carolina 9th congressional district race actually had to be invalidated and rerun. Because the Republican candidate in that race was using campaign officials that were collecting ballots, and then either throwing them out if they were Democratic ballots, or filling out blank ballots. And so in both those cases, I think the important lesson to learn is that in neither of those cases were voters themselves actually involved in fraud. So it wasn't illegal voters that were casting illegal ballots. It was political campaigns, and it was election officials that were actually engaged in fraud. And this is what we find is much more common across all types of election fraud.

Colleen: So individuals aren’t doing this.

Mike: Typically, it's election administrators that are engaged in fraud or political campaigns. It's rarely, if ever, voters. Most of the convictions for voter fraud, voter impersonation fraud are largely the result of error. People that are voting in two states and they don't know that they're not eligible, or people voting when they're on parole, and they're not eligible to vote, things like that.

So the bottom line is that even in the cases of New Jersey and North Carolina, it's important to note that these cases were discovered with relatively low numbers of ballots being cast inappropriately. And it's because we can detect fraud. We know forensic election science is pretty good at detecting irregular patterns of ballot returns. And so, when these things do happen, we tend to catch them and the number of voter and election fraud cases overall, and the number of ballots that have been cast inappropriately, we're really talking about thousands of ballots out of millions and millions of ballots cast. And so there's virtually no evidence that any kind of election fraud actually affects the turnout or affects the outcome of elections except in those two cases that we have.

Colleen: Mike, thanks for joining me, and I’m looking forward to continuing our conversation on the next episode. I definitely want to hear your thoughts on what might happen if people don’t mail in their ballots, and what we can all do to help protect our democracy. We’ll be dropping that episode in one week. But don’t go away just yet: it’s time for this week in science history with Katy Love.

This Week in Science History

This week in science history, we’re going back to July 25, 1972, when an Associated Press story ran in the Washington Star, and was on the front page of the New York Times the very next day, under the headline “Syphilis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years.” This was the first time the mainstream media would address the now infamous Tuskegee study. The attention and outrage from the articles—and those that followed—led to congressional hearings and an official review of the study, which was ultimately shut down that year.

Most people know the broad outline of the Tuskegee study: Starting in 1932, medical workers with the US Public Health Service, tracked 600 Black men in rural Alabama—399 with syphilis and 201 without. However, the men were not told what the study was for…in fact those diagnosed with syphilis weren’t even told their diagnosis. Instead participants were simply told that they had “bad blood.”

Yet despite the fact that penicillin was discovered to be a cure for syphilis 10 years into the study and became widely available five years later, the life-saving drug was not offered to any of the participants. All so the doctors could track how the untreated disease made its way through their bodies.

Throughout the course of the study, several dissenters tried to speak out against the ethical issues inherent to the work. Medical practitioners from both within and outside the US Public Health Service raised concerns with the study authors and leaders within the PHS, but it wasn’t until a whistleblower, Peter Buxtun, went to the press that real change happened.
By then, fewer than 75 of the men who received no treatment were still alive. And the victims extended to the wives and children of the untreated men, many of whom contracted syphilis from their husbands or were born with congenital syphilis.

And that’s not where the damage ends. In fact we’re seeing some of it playing out with COVID-19. Thanks to what’s known as the “Tuskegee Effect” Black people in the US often mistrust the medical system and are less likely to see a doctor over a health issue than members of other minority groups, which could be playing a part in the unequal health outcomes they’re seeing in the pandemic.

And while the medical and science establishment has worked to correct some of the ethical issues behind the study--most notably by requiring informed consent for any participants in clinical trials and other studies involving human participants--the racism underlying the study has not been eradicated.

In fact, the legacy of racism and White supremacy continues to distort science today, such as the persistence of racist theories of intelligence and the significant gaps in medical knowledge and healthcare outcomes for communities of color driven in large part by decades of research focused primarily on white men.

For scientists, researchers, and academics to be a real part of the solution, they must not remain silent. Efforts like the hashtags #ShutDownSTEM and #BlackInTheIvory are amplifying the experiences and voices of Black scientists and academics, who are among the many who have been calling attention to these issues for decades. Change is long overdue–and we all have a role to play. To work for a healthy planet and a safer world, we must make dismantling White supremacy in science and scientific organizations an integral part of our mission and daily work.

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