The COVID-19 pandemic has posed myriad threats to the safety, security, and fairness of the U.S. elections. Civil rights advocates and elections watchdogs have been on high alert about how these historic circumstances may abet traditional forms of voter suppression, including the purging of voter rolls, limiting access to ballots, relocating or closing polling centers, and other means of selective disenfranchisement. Technologists, meanwhile, warn that the migration of voter registration to online platforms is rife with vulnerabilities, cautioning that Russian hackers have devised stealthier, less traceable interference tactics, and that their activity is surging.
These issues were at the heart of an October 19 panel, “Matrix on Point: Pandemic Election, From Crowds to Clouds,” which brought together a group of distinguished guests from across the country. Moderated by Bertrall Ross, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the Berkeley School of Law, the panel featured Henry Farrell, the SNF Agora Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Bridgett A. King, Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Auburn University; Daniel Laurison, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College; and Catherine Meza, Senior Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
Presented by Social Science Matrix together with the Institute of Governmental Studies, the panel featured presentations by the four guests, followed by a Q&A. The panel explored how the pandemic is contributing to efforts to suppress and intimidate voters, the changing dynamics of virtual campaigning and voter outreach, the insecurities of online voter registration, and attempts to undermine absentee voting, either through disinformation or the under-resourcing of the U.S. Postal Service, among other issues.
“This election is unprecedented because it’s in the midst of a pandemic that has cost far too many people’s lives and has caused health damage to many others,” Ross said. “It’s also unprecedented because of the extent of voter suppression efforts that are being conducted right now. That includes efforts to delegitimize absentee ballots, which is a means by which people can vote in ways that are perhaps more safe for their health…. In addition to these voter suppression efforts, we are in the midst of a campaign that’s full of misinformation and disinformation. And this is particularly important in this election, given that the pandemic presents huge problems with respect to voting…. And finally, we have the questions that surround the election with respect to election security.”
In his presentation, Swarthmore’s Daniel Laurison noted that close to 90 million people who were eligible to vote in 2016 chose to stay home. “There are myriad reasons why they stayed home, and voter suppression was absolutely a part of that,” Laurison said. “Who that missing chunk of people is is important for understanding how our politics work…. The question of who is moved to participate is a really important aspect of our elections and campaigns, and part of that is about who campaigns spend their time and energy trying to talk to.”
Laurison said that lower-income citizens who tend to be less likely to vote also end up hearing less often from campaigns, creating a “vicious cycle” that keeps participation low among these groups. “Of people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, only about 40% report having heard directly from a campaign during the last election, whereas of people in the top 20% of income, close to 65 percent report having heard from a campaign,” he said. “There’s not only stark inequality and political participation in this country, there’s stark inequality in who campaigns talk to.”
“There’s not only stark inequality and political participation in this country, there’s stark inequality in who campaigns talk to.”
A related issue, Laurison noted, is that the staff of campaigns tend to be predominantly white and often are disconnected from communities where voter participation is low. “If we’re trying to understand why campaigns make the decisions they make, we need to attend to the question of who is making these decisions, where they are coming from, and how they are doing the work they are doing,” he said. “Campaign staff are not as connected to the people they’re trying to motivate as we might like them to be.”
In her presentation, Auburn University’s Bridgett King explained that her research has shifted toward “applying system and architectural engineering approaches and principles to the study of election administration — more specifically, what voters experience when they enter a polling location, processing voting, casting your ballot, and when they exit.” These factors matter, she explained, because “the quality of the in-person voting experience is one measure that can affect the confidence that voters have and processes at both at the local state and federal level.”
King explained that, despite this year’s surge in mail-in voting, many voters still prefer to vote in person. “A lot of voters are going to choose for a variety of reasons to vote in person, and that could be a lack of trust in the system, or concerns about ballots getting in on time,” she said. “There’s also a culture of in-person voting that is important to voters, particularly Black voters.”
The pandemic has led to new restrictions on the physical space needed for polling stations, King said, which in turn threatens to add to longer lines and, as a result, lower levels of engagement. “Many locations that are typically used for voting are either not as available or less available, which obviously creates an additional burden,” she said. “Election officials appear to systematically provide more poll workers and voting machines to White precincts than minority ones, causing minority voters to experience longer in-person voting times than their White counterparts. If we couple that with changes being made for safety, the consequences of reducing the number of machines and number of check-in stations can make what may have already been a bad situation only worse.”
“The consequences of reducing the number of machines and number of check-in stations can make what may have already been a bad situation only worse.”
“When you look across the electorate as a whole, and what people experience, most people wait less than 30 minutes,” King said. “But we also know that Black voters are disproportionately more likely to have to wait more than 30 minutes,” King said. “We need to acknowledge and remember that these experiences are going to be perceived differently for all Americans, particularly for Black Americans, many of whom have lived through and personally experienced intentional disenfranchisement, and the legacies of that persist and continue to manifest themselves.”
In her presentation, Katherine Meza from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. outlined how different states have imposed regulations to limit voter participation and create excuses for discarding ballots, including requiring witness signatures and photo IDs.
“During the 2020 primary elections and leading up to the general election, we’ve not only seen the persistence of the typical voter suppression tactics, but also how the COVID-19 pandemic has been effectively weaponized to make it even harder to vote, and especially for the most marginalized and vulnerable voters,” Meza said. “For the past decade, there’s been a steady wave of voting-related laws and procedures implemented in states throughout the country that were designed to suppress the role of People of Color. And this wave of suppressive laws only surged following the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision. In that decision, the court struck down the coverage formula contained in the Voting Rights Act that required certain covered states to submit all of their voting changes for federal approval before they could be implemented.”
In his presentation, Johns Hopkins’ Henry Farrell focused on the information aspects of the election, particularly the “informational stresses,” as he called them. “We are in a world where people are obviously stressed out in ways which have consequences for the ways in which they think about things, but also where we have stresses upon the electoral system, including the information aspects of the electoral system,” he said.
Farrell noted that political differences have led to variable perceptions of risk around COVID-19, which could influence voter behaviors. “There are very different informational universes that Republicans and Democrats have about the relative risks of physical voting, which also reflect of course the rhetoric of the president,” he said. “We see a much more heightened set of differences this time around…. between not only attitudes to the coronavirus pandemic, but more fundamentally to democracy…. When we have a Republican party that is clearly fearing that it is going to lose, this has led to greater willingness of Republicans to weaponize the kinds of claims that they have made for decades about the high incidence of election fraud in order to justify various burdens upon voting.”
Watch the full video of the panel above or on YouTube.