How the 2020 Election Could Hinge on the Voting Process Itself

Many Americans watch fireworks displays on Independence Day, eat turkey on Thanksgiving and, on Election Day, head to a school gymnasium, library or senior center to cast a ballot for their favorite presidential candidate.

A deadly pandemic has turned upside down one of these quintessential American routines: the act of voting.

Numerous voters say they are afraid to risk contagion by casting ballots in person. Many poll workers, often at high risk for infection because they are older adults, are afraid to show up. The best alternative, voting by mail, has become tangled in the politics of a deeply divided America as President Trump sows distrust about the process. And now he is suggesting he may not even honor the results of the vote, refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

For many election officials, it is a time stay focused. They are working to set up polling places that are socially distanced and stocked with hand sanitizer. More drop boxes are being installed in some states, and, despite confusion around mailed ballots, county clerks are bracing for processing and counting more of them than ever before.

For people like Tracy Adkison, 48, from Conyers, Ga., Election Day on Nov. 3 just won’t be the same.

In past years, Ms. Adkison has relished voting at her local polling place. It makes her feel like she is part of a community and critical to democracy, she said. It makes her feel like she is being heard.

“I love Election Day,” she said, punctuating every word.

But this year Ms. Adkison has requested an absentee ballot and plans to take it to a drop box as soon as she receives it. She believes this is the best chance she has for her vote to be counted in a year when polling places could be understaffed and overcrowded, and when doubts have been raised about the Postal Service’s handling of ballots.

Ms. Adkison will miss the patriotic jolt she feels from voting in person, but she said she would never consider giving up the chance to vote.

“Voting, for me, that is my voice,” said Ms. Adkison, who is a past president of the Georgia chapter of the League of Women Voters. “I know that is cliché. But that’s the only voice I have right now in my leadership and in my government.”

The pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of election season. Candidates aren’t showing up at roadside diners to court votes by shaking hands and kissing babies. Their supporters aren’t knocking on doors as much as usual or handing out campaign fliers at crowded events, though Mr. Trump has held several rallies. The efforts of get-out-the-vote organizations that typically set up booths at county fairs or concerts have been stymied.

The act of voting also has been complicated, as was demonstrated in the problems faced by some states during the primary election. Voters stood in line for hours to cast ballots in some areas. In others the tally of mailed ballots took much longer than expected. Officials have warned that the electorate may face similar circumstances during the presidential election.

Voting has long been difficult, and even denied, for many Americans. Women won the right to vote only 100 years ago. Many measures were taken to keep Black people, Native Americans and others from the polls. Voting rights advocates say present-day restrictions like photo ID laws serve to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

And this year’s problem-filled election isn’t without precedent. A flu pandemic threw the 1918 midterm elections into chaos.

Back then, the nation was enduring a second wave of a virus that prompted the closures of schools, churches and other spots where the public gathered. Rallies were canceled and candidates complained that the virus was being politicized for rivals’ gains. Polling sites in some parts of the country were closed.

This November, voting could be easier than ever in some states where laws were changed to allow for more access to mail-in balloting.

But the concept of mailing a ballot will be new for many voters. Others may be frustrated if they show up at polling sites they’ve used for years to find the locations have changed.

Besides the logistical issues, international disinformation campaigns are sowing distrust in the electorate. On Election Day, confusion could reign, which can especially deter new voters, some academics said.

“Any change in the mechanics and processes of voting can have an impact,” said D. Sunshine Hillygus, author of “Making Young Voters” and a political-science professor at Duke. “It’s a particularly large hurdle for those who don’t have experience with the process.”

In Wisconsin, Eloisa Gomez plans to be a poll worker in November in South Milwaukee.

As a retiree, she worries she is putting her health at risk. But Ms. Gomez knows she will probably be one of the few workers who can speak Spanish in an area of the city where many Latino voters live.

“I know they need bilingual people,” she said. “I just want to be helpful to others.”

Andrew Stratton, 18, a new voter from Nanticoke, Pa., was so eager to get started that he organized a schoolwide voter registration drive.

“It’s a rewarding experience for pretty much everybody involved,” said Mr. Stratton, who plans to vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Get-out-the-vote organizations are urging voters to research their options and make a plan for Election Day.

Shane Wikfors, 56, who lives in Mesa, Ariz., has done just that. He will vote at his regular polling place as he always does, but he will take precautions to protect himself from catching the virus.

Mr. Wikfors, a Republican who supports Mr. Trump, said voting was “a religious sacrament, like the way you go to church.”

“It’s a very visual presentation of oneself, and you get the little sticker, too,” he said. “I’m not going to let the pandemic steer me away from showing up at the polls.”

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