Pining for the Days of Hanging Chads

A Virginia voting booth. How quaint!

by James A. Bacon

It’s been twenty years since the Bush-Gore presidential election that brought the term “hanging chads” into common parlance. But that controversy, which plunged the nation into intense partisan acrimony, was mere dress rehearsal for what could be coming. Thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic, there likely will be an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots in the 2020 presidential election. And if you thought it was difficult determining votes from punch cards that left dangling bits of paper, just wait until we start sorting out the confusion over mail-in ballots.

The potential for electoral chaos was driven home here in Virginia by the recent mass mailing of mail-in ballot request forms by a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, the Center for Voter Information. A new Virginia law allowing no-excuse early voting for the 45-day period before election day. Asserting that voting by mail “keeps you healthy and safe,” the mailer urged voters to “just sign, date and complete the application.” The application forms had the recipient’s name and address pre-filled out.

“Our phones have been ringing off the hook because of the absentee ballot forms,” Susan Saunders, Suffolk’s voter registrar, told the Suffolk News Herald. “It has created vast confusion.”

Some of the information on the return envelope received by Suffolk voters appears to be incorrect. The Center for Voter Information appears to have confused return addresses for the city and county of Franklin, Roanoke, Richmond, and Fairfax. The Virginia Department of Elections said that any forms mailed to the wrong registrar would be forwarded to the correct office for processing.

Likewise, people have been calling into the Rockingham County registrar’s office, reports the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg. “It is a valid form that can be used, but if voters have already submitted an application, they don’t need to do it again,” said Lisa Gooden, director of elections. “Folks who already received an application might be confused [by the third-party mail], but if they want to discard it they can.”

Meanwhile, Danville registrar Peggy Petty says her office is bracing for the election. “We don’t know exactly what to expect. We’ve got the new law plus the pandemic. It’s just buckle up and hang on.”

“We’re going to have 45 days’ worth of elections,” said Pittsylvania County Registrar Kelly Keesee.

Early voting doesn’t begin until mid-September, but many voters have already requested an absentee ballot by mail, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In Congressional District 8, inside the Washington Beltway, nearly 46,000 voters have requested mail-in ballots, about 10,000 more than did in total for 2016. That compares to 361,000 total votes in the 2016 House of Representatives election in District 8.

June 23 primary elections in New York saw the volume of mail-in ballots 17.5 times higher than the previous elections, and local institutions were not prepared for the deluge, reports Slate. It took longer than expected to count the votes, and in one district 28% of the votes were invalidated due to missing postmarks and signatures. Talk about voter suppression! Fortunately, both state and local governments in New York are run by the Democratic Party, so there was no blaming Republicans for the outcome.

But that won’t be true come November. The United States is more politically polarized than in 2000. Even more worrisome, the legal pyrotechnics we saw in the aftermath of the Bush-Gore election will be mere hand sparklers compared to the fireworks we can expect this time around.

It is easy to foresee a close electoral outcome in 2020, with vote recounts demanded in multiple states. It is likewise easy to foresee controversy over the counting of absentee ballots and the agonizing over missing signatures, missing postmarks, missed posting deadlines, voting by the same person in multiple addresses, and all manner of utterly predictable problems. We will be pining for the simple days of divining voter intentions from hanging, swinging, and dimpled chads.

If invalidated ballots come disproportionately from minority precincts, we can predict racial discord overlaying partisan discord. In the age of “lawfare,” there will be lawsuits aplenty, court rulings, and appeals. The outcome could well be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, as it ultimately was in 2000. This time, half the population will likely declare it illegitimate.

There has been extensive coverage on the interest of Russians, Iranians and the Chinese in influencing or disrupting U.S. election results. Rest assured, there is nothing foreigners can do to poison and de-legitimize our elections more than what we do to ourselves.

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