‘Substantial chance’ of election fiasco in America
The head of America's Federal Election Commission has warned there is a "substantial chance" the winner of November's presidential election will not be known on the night.
Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, was on CNN's morning show New Day today, where she spoke about the coronavirus pandemic and how it will affect the election.
"Let me just tell everybody, we're all going to need to take a deep breath and be patient this year," Ms Weintraub said.
"Because, you know, there's a substantial chance we are not going to know on election night what the results are. Possibly for the presidency, but maybe for many other races that are important to people."
The presidency isn't the only job up for grabs on election day. Races for Congress, the Senate and state offices like governorships will also be decided on November 3.
"That's OK. If it takes a little bit longer to count the votes accurately, that's what we need to do in order to ensure that everyone's vote counts," she concluded.
There’s “a substantial chance” that the results won’t be out on election night, says Federal Election Commission’s Ellen Weintraub. “If it takes a little bit longer to count all the votes accurately, that’s what we need to do in order to ensure that everyone’s vote counts.” pic.twitter.com/mNdwuzjvyt— New Day (@NewDay) August 10, 2020
"Are you concerned at all, as you point out - the increase in the number of people who will be voting absentee or voting by mail? Are you concerned that there are enough people in place, that the infrastructure is there to get all of those votes counted in a timely fashion?" anchor Erica Hill asked.
"Well, I think what we need to do is get more resources to the states. This is critically important and it has to happen now," Ms Weintraub said.
"States and localities are gong to incur huge extra expenses this year in order to have the kind of ramped up absentee voting program that the voters are demanding. But also to provide safe in-person voting, for those voters who choose to vote that way.
"They're having trouble recruiting poll workers. If there are listeners out there who are young and healthy and would like to do something for their democracy, I encourage you to volunteer to be a poll worker.
"But the entire operation is going to be much more expensive."
Ms Weintraub cited an estimate from the Brennan Centre, which says this election will come with $US4 billion in extra costs as a result of the pandemic.
So far, Congress has only allocated about $US400 million.
"They really need to allocate more money now. I'm very concerned about this. And that is the number one priority right now," she said.
"No, Mr President. No. You don't have the power to move the election," she said.
"Nor should it be moved. States and localities are asking you and Congress for funds so they can properly run the safe and secure elections all Americans want. Why don't you work on that?"
The election date is set by Congress, not the President, which means any attempt to delay would have to be passed by both the House, controlled by the Democrats, and the Senate, controlled by the Republicans.
It has never been moved before - not even during the Civil War or World War II.
Mr Trump has repeatedly claimed mail-in voting will lead to widespread voter fraud favouring his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden.
The President started today's White House media briefing by addressing the subject, before he was dramatically rushed out by the Secret Service due to a security threat.
"I thought I'd start by talking about some mail-in voting that just was revealed," Mr Trump told reporters.
"Half a million incorrect absentee ballot applications were sent out all across the state of Virginia, including to many dead people. This was an unprecedented mailing flub that heightened concerns about the integrity of expanding mail-in voting.
"Mail-in voting is a disaster. From all over Virginia, half a million votes. So that is something you have to think about. We don't want to have a rigged election.
"When you have this mail-in voting, it is very susceptible, something that can be easily attacked by foreign countries and by, frankly, Democrats and by Republicans. I think it is something you have to start thinking about very seriously.
"Our system is not equipped for it, our post office is not equipped for it, and people should vote like they did in World War I and World War II.
"This is just crazy. Half a million incorrect ballot applications, sent all over the state of Virginia to many people who were not living. Some were sent to pets, dogs. This is what we are going to get into and it is going to be a disaster. It is going to hurt our country."
He accused Democrats of "meddling" in the election and trying to "steal" it by "insisting on sending mail-in ballots where there's corruption all over the place".
It is true that 580,000 ballot applications with inaccurate information were mailed to voters in Virginia. They were sent by an organisation called the Centre for Voter Information, not the government.
The applications in question included prepaid return envelopes addressed to the incorrect registrar's office. The organisation has blamed the mistake on a printing error.
"I am frustrated by it. My staff is frustrated by it," Gary Scott, the General Registrar and Director of Elections for Virginia's Fairfax County, told WJLA TV.
"There is a great deal of perceived distrust with voting by mail. It's not an issue. We've been doing it since the Civil War. But something like this doesn't help."
Be on the lookout for this inaccurate, potentially misleading mailing from the Center for Voter Information. Fairfax County DIDN’T send this mailing. Learn more: https://t.co/OwT0fI7uHE pic.twitter.com/OVdY2dwJMg— Fairfax County Government 😷 (@fairfaxcounty) August 6, 2020
The Democrats are pushing for expanded access to mail voting due to the coronavirus, which is still rampant in the US and could make voting in person difficult.
The danger is that Americans will face a choice between going to the polls and potentially exposing themselves to infection, or staying home and missing out.
But facilitating widespread mail voting will be harder in practice than it sounds in theory.
Each state has its own rules - some already send applications to every single voter anyway, while others only allow voting by mail in specific circumstances.
On top of that, the US Postal Service is woefully under-resourced, and may not be equipped to deal with the drastic increase in volume that a large mail voting effort would inevitably cause.
And mail ballots take longer to count than in-person ballots - hence the "substantial chance" that there will be no result on election night.
Mr Trump's concerns about fraud, on the other hand, appear to be wildly overblown.
Across the entire US, there have only been 143 criminal convictions related to the "fraudulent use of absentee ballots" in the last two decades.
"We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 per cent of total votes cast," political scientist Charles Stewart and the former Denver elections director Amber McReynolds wrote in a piece for The Hill earlier this year, in which they tried to dispel the "vote-by-mail fraud myth".
Based on previous elections, the Brennan Centre has estimated the risk of mail ballot fraud to be between 0.00004 and 0.0009 per cent.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has concluded mail ballots are more vulnerable to fraud than in-person ballots, but the institution says it remains an extremely rare occurrence.
"There are two major features of (absentee voting) that raise these concerns. First, the ballot is cast outside the public eye, and thus the opportunities for coercion and voter impersonation are greater," MIT said.
"Second, the transmission path of ballots is not as secure as traditional in-person ballots. These concerns relate both to ballots being intercepted and ballots being requested without the voter's permission.
"As with all forms of voter fraud, documented instances of fraud related to mail voting are rare."
In her interview with CNN today, Ms Weintraub agreed with that assessment.
"Most states allow absentee voting. It's been done before. It's safe. There is no substantial risk of fraud involved in absentee voting," she said.
Originally published as 'Substantial chance' of election fiasco