Fair Elections During a Crisis

Nationwide experts, including MIT Professor Charles Stewart III, make 14 urgent recommendations for the 2020 elections.

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This is an historic document:  Fair Elections During a Crisis outlines 14 urgent recommendations by the nationwide Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy, a team of election experts that includes Charles Stewart III, MIT Distinguished Kenan Sahin Professor of Political Science, and the founder of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab.  

What can citizens do to help? Among the most important is to contact your governor and state legislators to advocate for sensible vote-by-mail options for the 2020 elections, to ensure that it will be safe to vote during the pandemic: "Election officials at the grass roots level are working at a high level to respond to the crisis and ensure that voting will be safe and secure in November," says Professor Stewart. "Americans should be communicating with their state elected officials — governors and state legislators — to advocate for the measures necessary to meet this crisis. Election officials need the political support that comes from the public rallying around them." 

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A Distilled Summary of 14 Recommendations

1. States should adopt reforms to improve the absentee ballot and provisional ballot processes both in terms of access and security. In particular, states should reduce the extent to which the counting of such ballots might be subjected to counting delays that could cause significant shifts in vote margins after in precinct returns are reported on election night. States should provide transparent information about absentee and provisional ballot counting and the number of ballots remaining to be counted.

2. States should develop or revise election emergency plans well in advance of the elections so that they are robustly able to handle foreseeable contingencies, including the new threat to the November 2020 elections posed by Covid-19. These guidelines should provide generous opportunities for eligible voters to safely and securely cast ballots.

3. States should modify election procedures as necessary to deal with the rise of Covid-19. Having a diversity of avenues for voting in person, absentee, curbside, on site at hospitals and other such facilities enhances the stability of the system, maximizing the likelihood that elections may continue despite whatever unexpected threat emerges. Online return of ballots should not be contemplated for the November 2020 elections. States should take steps to protect the transmission and accurate counting of the expected increase in the number of absentee ballots.

4. The community of election law scholars should develop a non-partisan set of protocols for how best to resolve, consistent with rule-of-law and constitutional principles, votecounting disputes that might render uncertain the outcome of the presidential election, including protocols for resolving interpretative ambiguities concerning the Electoral Count Act insofar as it governs the role of Congress in receiving and counting Electoral College votes from the states.

5. Media organizations should engage in a public information effort to provide voters with accurate information about the process by which election officials count votes and determine election winners. The public education effort should include a simple citizen’s guide to election coverage and a one-stop shop for online information about election processes and outcomes. This information should be translated into as many languages as possible.

6. Nonprofit organizations should facilitate journalistic training and coverage planning to help reporters and media outlets appropriately set expectations about the timing of election results and election procedures before the election and to accurately report on events as they develop. It is especially important for the media to convey to the public the idea that, given an expected increase in absentee ballot voting in the November 2020 elections, delays in election reporting are to be expected, not evidence of fraud, and that the 2020 presidential election may be “too early to call” until days after election day.

7. COVID-19 is going to increase the costs of elections as more voters, when they can, will choose to vote-by-mail and as safety precautions increase the costs of in-person voting. Congress and states should provide adequate funding to deal with the increased election costs that will be associated with COVID-19.

8. Nonprofit organizations and foundations should establish an independent bipartisan Election Crisis Commission well before the elections to affirm a set of core principles that should govern elections and warn against the erosion of core democratic norms. The Commission should encourage candidates and other political actors to embrace those principles, and it should weigh in on post-election disputes, if necessary, to resolve them consistent with those principles.

9. Election officials, government leaders, and others should embrace the democratic principle that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, should be able to register and vote in a fair election with accurate vote-counting. Losers of fair elections should quickly accept election results once they are final. Elections, even those conducted during a crisis or emergency such as COVID-19, should be resolved consistent with fair election principles, recognizing and resolving disputes in good faith.

10. Leaders in social media, election officials, government leaders, and others should promote the equal protection voting norm, enshrined in the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which ban targeting voters based on race or ethnicity in an effort to suppress or dilute their vote. Social media companies have a unique responsibility to prevent the use of their platforms for efforts that would suppress votes through the spread of misinformation about voting.

11. To the extent possible, states should use paper ballots or electronic machinery that produces a voter-verifiable record of the voter’s choices, in the November 2020 elections to ensure the integrity of the outcome. States should audit election results, and work towards incorporating risk-limiting audits.

12. Election administrators should create a resilient election infrastructure to deal with the unexpected, including complications related to COVID-19. Resiliency measures include having enough ballots on hand to accommodate high voter turnout, redundant election machinery, and paper copies of e-pollbook voter registration records.

13. Election officials should obtain a .gov domain for an authenticated internet presence. They should secure “verified” status for their official accounts on social media platforms.

14. State election officials should monitor and audit state voter registration databases.

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Related links

Up-to-date news and research for the 2020 Elections
Information based on research from the MIT Election Lab and the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project

MIT Election Lab

Charles Stewart III | MIT webpage
MIT election expert; founder the MIT Election lab; leading national voice on election administration

MIT Political Science