By Eliza Newlin Carney
On the surface, this election looks like a disaster waiting to happen. Congress approved only a small fraction ($400 million) of the estimated $4 billion that states needed to run the election amid a pandemic. Lawsuits, postal service delays, and fears about voter suppression or a looming constitutional crisis have left many Americans bracing for Election Day chaos.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box this year: average Americans, business leaders, student volunteers, and state and local officials have all stepped in where the federal government failed. In addition to the $400 million that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have donated to help election officials, business leaders on both left and right have contributed millions worth of protective equipment, infrastructure and people power to help salvage the election.
As I note in The Fulcrum recently, this year’s unprecedented outpouring of private sector support ranges from the four dozen stadiums that sports leagues have opened up as polling places to the millions worth of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and face shields donated by major corporations. The private money has drawn controversy, sparking lawsuits from conservatives and some complaints from liberals who say elections should be publicly funded.
But most election experts say the private donations are legal, and on balance should be applauded. As David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told me: “Plan A should always be that government pays to provide the infrastructure for our democracy. But we are in unusual times right now. State budgets are particularly strained. Congress has refused to act. And it’s not like we can delay the election.”
STATE SUCCESSES: Our nation’s balkanized voting system, which leaves election administration to state and local officials, raised plenty of problems in the primary and may still disrupt the general election. States are still scrambling on the fly to process millions of mail-in ballots, which voters may or may not sign and seal correctly. Still, some success stories are emerging as early voting gets under way. Poll worker shortages during the primary have dramatically lessened, thanks in part to an army of young volunteers recruited by such groups as the new nonprofit Power to the Polls.
Early voting has also exploded, with more than 44 million ballots cast as of Oct. 22, according to the U.S. Elections Project. (That compares with only 5.9 million at the same point four years ago.) Some speculate that the shift to early voting will be permanent, potentially increasing the nation’s historically low turnout rate. And the use of ballot drop boxes, which as I noted in The Fulcrum are the no-brainer solution to this pandemic-plagued election, has expanded in both red states and blue. It’s another shift that, if it becomes permanent, could boost turnout over the long term.
AN EXPANDING COALITION: An array of new groups have joined the campaign to protect voting rights, adding to the coalition spearheaded by such established players as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The bipartisan group VoteSafe, co-chaired by Tom Ridge, the former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania, and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, is working to expand absentee voting and protect voters from health risks at the polls.
Another bipartisan group, Business for America, which launched its own Operation Vote Safe campaign to deliver personal protective equipment and other aid to election workers, plans to support a full slate of democracy reforms after the election. These include anti-gerrymandering measures and ranked choice voting. That suggests that efforts to protect the election could not only spur lasting changes to voting, but buoy the larger movement to strengthen and reform democracy.
Eliza Newlin Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle.
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