Bipartisan Leadership Needed to Prepare for the November Election

Since 2016, national leaders have worked to prepare for the 2020 election—anticipating foreign adversaries again working to use cyber operations to influence and interfere with the democratic process. But no one predicted the challenges posed by the Coronavirus outbreak.

Holding a presidential election during a pandemic could test the nation’s current capacity for self-government. Government officials currently focusing on addressing the current public health emergency must also begin to plan ahead for November. 

The nation’s leaders must put aside their partisan differences to make holding a successful November election a bipartisan priority, and that begins by supporting state and local officials who are responsible for administering the election.

On Friday, Congress passed the stimulus bill that includes $400 million in additional funding for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to help states and local governments administering elections to prepare and respond to the Coronavirus pandemic. This funding follows more than $800 million in total aid allocated to the EAC in 2018 and last December to help states upgrade election systems and improve cybersecurity defenses.

The challenge now falls to state and local election officials to identify ways to hold elections while the nation confronts a pandemic.

At least ten states and territories have already postponed their spring presidential primaries. It is possible that more will follow suit if continued social distancing is required in the weeks and months ahead. 

One option that many states are now considering, for primaries and November, is to expand Vote-by-Mail. Ohio recently announced that it would conduct an all-mail primary with ballots due by April 28th. But critics warn that even that deadline was unrealistic given the practical challenges associated with distributing ballots by mail. States across the nation must consider how they will change their election procedures to administer widespread voting-by-mail if necessary come November.  

As Sean Roberts and I recently wrote in The Hill, Vote-by-Mail offers a promising option if social distancing is required in November. But government leaders, voting experts, and technologists will need to work together to quickly identify ways to address potential concerns about Vote-by-Mail, including the risk of fraud and ballot harvesting as well as potentially disenfranchising voters.

To address these concerns, election officials could consider options to use technology to protect the integrity of the process. For example, one option is to provide voters with electronic receipts (such as QR codes or tracking numbers) to ensure that their votes are counted accurately. Another option to consider is to utilize electronic signature scanners to reduce ballot harvesting election fraud. Local elections officials are best positioned to understand the needs and challenges we potentially face transitioning to a system of Vote-by-Mail ahead of November. Experts from the technology and policy community should stand ready to provide input and expertise to support these public servants’ challenging work.

This would follow the recent efforts to support state and local cybersecurity to protect election systems, led by the Department of Homeland Security under both the Obama and Trump administrations. The public private partnership offers a promising model for how the sectors can work together to tackle a common problem. While important work remains to be done, state and local governments have made significant progress to improve their cybersecurity capabilities since 2016. 

It’s time that a similar national, bipartisan effort is applied to addressing the challenges of voting during a potential pandemic.  

Given the nature of elections, and what is at stake, there is a real risk that partisans on both sides will instead seize the opportunity afforded by potential changes in voting practices to further exploit our nation’s partisan divisions. Republicans and Democrats alike will have opportunities to cry foul about proposed or planned changes and warn that potentially necessary changes will be unfair in November. While criticism is legitimate and debating potential solutions is necessary, it’s important that the nation’s political leaders ultimately work together to identify solutions that both parties can support.

As the 2016 experience has taught us all too well, lingering doubts about the legitimacy of an election impose a significant toll on national governance and undermine the federal government’s ability to execute its responsibilities, such as responding to a national emergency in a bipartisan manner.

To prepare for November, Republican and Democratic leaders at all levels of government, and partisan thought-leaders in the private sector, have an important choice to make. Either to use potential changes to the voting process to political advantage or to commit to finding bipartisan solutions for administering the election to ensure that voters have confidence in the outcome regardless of who wins in November.

For the sake of American democracy and governance, they must choose the latter.

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Dan Lips
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Zach Graves
Executive Director
Grace Meyer
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Marshall Kosloff
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Luke Hogg
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Deepesh Chaudhari
Senior Fellow