These changing and shifting policies—which will likely change and shift right up until Election Day—will, like the pandemic itself, have hugely unpredictable effects on who actually votes, skewing not just the vote totals but making polling and turnout models less reliable, and making even legitimate returns appear suspiciously different than anticipated.
Right now, there are so many variables it’s impossible to predict how these problems will affect the results. Vulnerable poorer and minority populations are generally the most affected by the closure and rearrangement of polling places, but in Atlanta, the NBA Hawks are offering up their arena for a socially distanced voting location and challenging other NBA teams to do the same, which might conversely mean that urban voters have better access to polling machines than suburban voters. Meanwhile, older, conservative voters—particularly in states that have not made accommodations for the pandemic—will find themselves having to think hard about the risk of standing in line to vote in person, especially in the Southern states that seem least inclined to make allowances for the pandemic.
To head off all those polling-place problems, many states are racing to update their voting procedures to allow for expanded absentee balloting or even full vote-by-mail.
Coming into 2020, five states—Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah—were already planning to conduct their voting entirely by mail, giving them all manner of protection in a year of unknowns. Now, dozens more are scrambling to adjust their voting procedures mid-pandemic, lifting restrictions on absentee ballots and encouraging voters to vote by mail—all the while racing the clock.
This puts huge pressure on underfunded election departments to prepare, quickly, for a deluge. “Election officials are always resource-starved—not just personnel, but in terms of IT and personal bandwidth. You’re always one day closer to the election,” says Matt Masterson, the top election security adviser at the Department of Homeland Security. “They’re being asked to adjust procedures much more quickly than they normally would. That invites risk.”
Already, hasty rollouts of expanded absentee and vote-by-mail programs have complicated primaries and caucuses from Iowa to California to Georgia. The problems run up and down the ladder: overwhelmed staff getting ballots going out late, printing and paper shortages, and space constraints. As simple as it sounds, the tight quarters of a city or town clerk’s office may not be large enough to securely hold a sudden influx of boxes and boxes of ballots—to say nothing of how social distancing requirements will affect the counting procedures. On Election Night itself, officials are likely this year to find that they don’t even have the right equipment to tally votes—places that rely on in-person voting across multiple smaller locations typically use slower scanners than vote-by-mail states, whose centralized counting requires high-speed equipment. “Now, you need to move to high-speed scanners, or you need to hire an army of people to feed those ballots into those scanners. And that's going to take a very long time,” says voting tech expert Ben Adida.