This week we scrutinise mail-in voting.

Listen to an exclusive interview with William Barnard from Democrats Abroad on the latest episode of our US Election Podcast:

The President’s tweet that ‘Mail-In-Voting’ will make ‘2020 the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history’ marked a dramatic reignition of America’s decades-long battle over allegations of electoral fraud. It is a battle that has become increasingly politicised and with the coronavirus pandemic accelerating across the country, now threatens to rear its head this November.  

The origins of this battle are found in the election night of 2000, which left voters asking one of the most dangerous questions for their democracy: ‘Did my vote count?’

As the evening proceeded, Al Gore grew increasingly confident of victory before CBS and CNN projected the swing state of Florida for the Democratic presidential candidate. Yet at 10 p.m. multiple networks announced that ‘we have made a mistake’ and moved Florida back into the undecided column. By the following day this left George Bush on 246 electoral college votes and Al Gore with 250, meaning neither had the 270 required to win the presidency.

As Americans awoke, a constitutional crisis was underway. No one knew who their next president was.

What followed over the next 36 days became a watershed moment in revealing fundamental flaws in the country’s democratic system

The mistake made by declaring Florida for Al Gore highlighted the unusual role US media play in announcing the victor of each state, after calculating patterns from exit polls, precinct and county level votes.

It was also revealed that the very tool voters use to have their say — the ballot paper — was now alleged to be failing them. With the final tally in Florida showing Al Gore trailing Bush by just 1,784 votes, Democratic officials launched a court case arguing that the ballot had confused Gore supporters into voting for third-party candidate Buchanan.

After 30 days of legal argument, Florida’s Supreme Court ordered a manual recount in the state. The US Supreme Court however, on December 12th ordered the recount to be stopped and on a 5-4 margin judged that no alternative method of recount could be established in a ‘timely manner’.

The result of the election had been decided in the courts — Florida had voted for Bush, who was now president with a lead of 5 electoral college votes, and 540,520 fewer votes nationally than Al Gore. Although the 2000 election had finally ended and retrospective studies show Bush would likely have increased his vote if a recount took place, those 36 days triggered a new political battle with all agreeing the voting system was not fit for purpose.

It underlined yet again the paradox that the president can win the electoral college yet lose the popular vote. The fact that Secretary of State, Katherine Harris was Chief Election Officer in Florida whilst also being co-chair of the Bush Campaign, showed how elections aren’t run independently. America’s voting system was clearly open to electoral fraud and malpractice.

What followed was a battle where constitutional questions over voting practice became embroiled in racial tensions and partisanship

In 2002 Congress passed the ‘Help America Vote Act’ (HAVA) which invested $4 billion in upgrading voting machines, training officials, and combatting electoral fraud. It was the actions of Missouri’s Republican Senator, Kit Bond though which laid the ground for a political row that continues today.

Bond claimed that Republican John Ashcroft had lost his Senate race because of ‘voting by dead people and dogs’. The HAVA act thus, included measures that required voters to present ID if they had registered or were voting by mail. HAVA only set minimum standards and some states went far beyond these regulations. The power of individual states was then strengthened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision which threw out parts of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, by giving states the right ‘without clearance from the Justice Department’ to enact changes to voting processes.

This left America in a complicated situation

Individual states had different rules concerning voter ID, whilst across the country the number of days one could vote and the number of polling stations available varied dramatically.

In Florida, Senator Scott attempted to make voter registration more difficult and reduced the days available for early voting. This meant Florida was visibly sidelined from the democratic process in 2012 when Obama’s victory was declared, without any result having been announced from the state. In contrast, California passed a law that automatically registers eligible citizens when they renew or obtain a driver’s license.

Between 2010 and 2016, 21 states have passed laws that curtailed ballot access, whilst 23 have expanded it. In almost all cases, those making it harder to vote were Republican-controlled states.

Republicans frequently claim that in implementing ID checks they are ensuring voters are registered citizens and that this is only an extension of practices used in everyday life. Undermining these claims, are studies that show whilst there is little evidence of electoral fraud, the measures being implemented frequently make it harder for minority groups to vote.

The Brennan Centre for Justice found only 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud between 2000 and 2014 and in 2016, there were only 30 serious incidents of non-citizen voting. The Washington Post meanwhile, has found that in elections where ID was required to vote, the Hispanic turnout decreased by 7.1 per cent compared to areas where ID wasn’t required. The turnout gap between the number of white and black voters increased from 2.5 per cent to 11.6 per cent.

Due to coronavirus, it is expected that more voters will cast their ballot by post, and thus extra pressure is being applied on highly contested mail-in ballots

Trump has alleged that mail-in ballots allow people to ‘cheat’. In April, Republicans in Wisconsin were backed by the courts in opposing Democratic plans to postpone in-person voting and extend absentee ballots until June, as coronavirus cases increased in the state. Chatham House concluded that the decision forced ‘voters into a trade-off between their health and the right to vote’.

As restrictions over early voting and mail-in ballots are debated, some Democrats are worried about the possible consequences. The majority of Democratic voters plan to vote by mail this November, while nearly 79 per cent of Republicans still plan to vote in person. In addition, African Americans have traditionally preferred to vote in person, something that may be hampered by the pandemic, whilst minority groups frequently don’t have the required ID to submit mail-in ballots.

Covid-19 also threatens to expose the consequences of the Supreme Court allowing states to define their own electoral rules

When America held midterms during the 1918 Spanish Flu influenza, there were variations in electoral practice across the country — something that if repeated could undermine November’s result.

In Idaho the Supreme Court threw out votes cast at an emergency polling station for a quarantined school, changing the result to a Republican victory. Democrat, Alfred Smith running in New York accused the incumbent of preventing him from campaigning by enacting a ban on public gatherings. Dissimilarly, Washington was fully open by election day.

The traditional routine of election night itself is also at threat. With mail-in and absentee ballots likely to be higher than in previous years, New York’s congressional election in June is a prescient warning for November. On election night, Republican, Chris Jacobs had a lead of 40 per cent but this narrowed three weeks later to only 5 per cent after more than 80,000 absentee ballots were counted.

Rather than speaking of an election day, it may be time to talk of an election week, as votes of all kinds are counted. The damage to American democracy that could be done by both sides during such a week is startling. Especially if the night’s result is then later undermined by the counting of absentee ballots, amid widespread allegations of mail-in voting difficulties.

Democrats Abroad has success in increasing vote amongst US citizens living abroad

With such possibilities, it is easy to begin panicking. Yet it is only August and around the world are positive signs that elections can occur during a pandemic. In South Korea, they had their highest turnout in 28 years in April’s election, with those quarantined allowed to vote between certain hours and those sick in hospital or at home entitled to vote by paper ballot.

For America there has been great success in increasing the vote amongst US citizens living overseas who are eligible to vote. In Episode 4 of the ‘US Election with Erik Green Podcast’ UK Voting Representative of ‘Democrats Abroad UK’ William Barnard stated that: ‘over time we’ve gradually been able to remove the impediments to voting from abroad’ and subsequently turnout has increased over the last decade. Especially as American citizens abroad have been energised by events such as ‘the Iraq War, the Obama Presidency, and Trump’.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote of US election campaigns that they felt like the river of American democracy was set to burst its banks but then that river subsides, returns to its course and life continues. The legitimacy of the upcoming election rests on those involved to fulfil all that is required and prepare the public for an election night that will be like no other. Millions of Americans will be casting their ballot away from the polling station and mail-in votes will play an unprecedented role. Unless due preparations are made, that wilful river of democracy could very well burst its banks.

Listen to US Election with Erik Green Podcast Episode 3: That November Night

As Donald Trump claims mail-in voting will make the election ‘fraudulent and inaccurate’, we follow the decades-long battle over alleged voter fraud. Going back to the infamous election night of 2000, when Americans awoke the following day not knowing who their president was. Erik Green interviews William Barnard to discuss the role of Democrats Abroad in increasing support and turnout during this election amongst Americans living abroad.

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