Voting in a pandemic
Since Covid-19 changed the world as we know it, everything from campaigning to voting has materially changed. From voter registration—to the process of voting itself—traditional processes to pick a president have been upended in unprecedented new ways, according to Chris Lucas, director of government affairs at BNY Mellon.
One of the biggest mysteries of 2020 has been how voting will take place in the upcoming US presidential election. With some of the public reluctant to go to polling stations amid fear of contracting Covid-19,¹ changes are necessary to make polling stations safe, while sharp scrutiny is falling on how those votes will be collected and counted. Although attempting to predict the outcome of past elections has been known to move markets, this election cycle is, unusually, clouded by uncertainty, according to Lucas.
“The biggest issue is the safety of the people voting,” Lucas says. “Voting is an activity where you are close together when waiting in line and it’s also a high touch activity in the sense that, if you vote late in the day, you’re touching equipment that has been touched by literally hundreds, if not thousands of people.”
The pandemic has clearly upset the traditional way of voting and made it very difficult in our current environment, Lucas adds.
Man your stations
To adapt to the new normal, the Centers for Disease Control has laid out guidelines for election officials and poll workers, which include seeking out larger venues to use as polling stations so voters have sufficient space from one another.² Lucas says it will also be important to ensure there is an adequate amount of voting equipment to rotate in and out of use, which would allow them to be cleaned regularly. But while increasing the size of polling stations and ramping up the cleanliness of equipment seem like straight forward solutions, the largest issue is not as easy to solve for, according to Lucas.
“The biggest issue is the lack of poll workers to man polling stations. Traditionally it’s hard to find someone that is willing to sit in a stuffy room all day and run elections. But they’re really the most critical part of how voting stations function,” Lucas says.
The problem of finding polling staff will likely be exacerbated in two major ways, according to Lucas. First, poll workers tend to be older³ and therefore more susceptible to the virus so they’re unlikely to want to take part, and second, there will be an inherent need for more staff due to additional cleaning needs, he says.
Lucas believes staffing may be the biggest hurdle for polling stations as there is no clear solution to this shortage. But one answer may be for corporations to give workers the day off so they can volunteer as poll workers—an action he says some have already taken.⁴
Contrary to what some believe, Lucas says the possible issue with mail-in-voting has little to do with the capabilities of the postal service. In fact, he says post offices tend to handle a larger than usual influx of mail during holiday seasons fairly well, so he believes they should be able to handle an uptick in election ballot mail.
The real challenge, he says, will be keeping ballots secure and accurately registered. In particular, how will incorrectly filled out ballots be counted and what happens if voters fail to follow the standard rules of postage? Other important questions surround how the votes will be counted since they would not be processed through onsite polling machines.
“If they’re going to be opened on Election Day, they may not be opened until all polls close. There will be a small staff of poll workers, physically opening ballots and they will have to apply a standard for how they’re counted and not counted,” Lucas says. “I think we’ve all become used to elections being called within three to four hours of the polls closing. But think about how many envelopes you can physically open. Also, how will those results be released to the general public as they are being tabulated?”
These questions pose serious concern as to the ability for the election to be called in a timely manner, according to Lucas. Of course, throughout the whole process, there is also the possibility of increased risk of voter fraud. But that’s another problem altogether. In terms of the increased work to process a large amount of mail-in-ballots, the immediate concern is how long it will take to process the results, as well as the accuracy of those results. Lucas says both are dependent on two things: the closeness of the election and level of preparedness of varying state-specific Board of the Elections.
“If there is a margin by a few hundred votes in two or three states and you have to recount all those ballots—and there’s this unwieldy vote-by-mail process with tons of paper floating around—you’ve got to get a handle on the paper and then you’ve got to secure the custody. Then, there may be campaign representatives that litigate those ballots, as some states do. That’s one way it could be extended in terms of the timing of results,” Lucas says.
“On the administrative side, there may be key counties where some election administrators do a bad job, and as a result, it could take longer to count the votes. But we don’t know how bad those breakdowns are going to be until they happen.”
If the election turns out to be close, Lucas says he would not be surprised if the losing side does everything in its power to contest the results, which would lead to a definite delay in the acceptance of those results.
One of the more obvious fallouts from the pandemic has been the remedial lockdown and resulting closure of government buildings. The Department of Motor Vehicles, and other places where Americans usually register to vote, were closed down due to Covid-19 and as a result, new voter registration dropped in the spring.⁵
“I think you are seeing a lot of private companies, particularly social networks attempting to pick up the slack. But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for automatic motor voter registration⁶, so there’s a very good chance this will have an effect,” Lucas says. “It’s not just motor voter, you’ve got a lot of younger folks that don’t have drivers licenses who would traditionally be reached by door-to-door canvasing and that’s been severely curtailed as well.”
Again, if the election turns out to be close, this is one more reason for the losing party to reject the legitimacy of the results, Lucas says.
Despite hurdles for the younger generation and new voter registration, Lucas says there are factors that could also cause an increase in voter turnout. While some of these factors are a result of the pandemic, others have to do with the increasing acceleration of technology. For instance, since Covid-19 lockdowns have forced most of the American public to remain indoors and absorb political news at an unprecedented rate,⁷ this could work in favor of increased turnout.
“If you’re not going into the office and you’re in a place that doesn’t have a whole lot of in-person activities, you are spending a lot of time looking at screens, many of which have news about the election,” Lucas says. “I think people who are deciding whether or not to vote are probably consuming a lot more information on this election than people in elections past just because of that fact.”
“Also, people have a lot of opinions on how the pandemic was handled so I think those things will all work in favor of participation.”
Lucas adds that technological advance has been a game changer, allowing for microtargeting to become easier over the years via social media and other platforms, reaching segments of the population to a personalized degree not possible in years passed. From an extreme point of view, it was technological advancements that opened the door for scandal, most recently when consulting firm Cambridge Analytica created an app requiring Facebook login information and absorbed personal data on users and their networks for microtargeted political advertising campaigns.⁸ But, of course, there is a legal way to microtarget as well.
“In this election cycle, campaigns have emailed voters to say they might want to support candidate X, and afterward, they follow up with more background on that candidate. They have found that voters feel more comfortable making small contributions to candidates with whom they have a personal connection,” Lucas says. “A big component of this election is about innovation and how well each party can harness technology to win the race.”
With so many moving factors, markets are sure to be shrouded in uncertainty with no real predictable outcome for the election, Lucas says. “Anyone who says they know how this race is going to end up—they don’t, because nobody knows. This is one of the most unpredictable elections in modern history,” he concludes.
²CDC: Considerations for Election Polling Locations and Voters. June 22, 2020.
³Pew Research: Older people account for large shares of poll workers and voters in U.S. general elections. April 6, 2020.
⁴Axios: Businesses give employees paid time off to work polls on Election Day. September 15, 2020.
⁵NPR: Pandemic Puts A Crimp On Voter Registration, Potentially Altering Electorate. May 26, 2020.
⁶The Motor Voter Act requires states to provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license. Source: Justice.gov: About the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Accessed September 15, 2020.
⁷NY Times: Lockdown TV: Netflix Dominates, News Surges and Bea Arthur is Still Golden. April 30, 2020.
⁸Big Think: Will social media’s impact on the elections be different this time? August 27, 2020.