NEW YORK — With a raging pandemic that has pushed the U.S. total COVID-19 cases above 9 million and an unprecedented early voting turnout that has seen over 90 million ballots cast, voters have already begun experiencing a presidential election that differs from previous ones in major ways, even before election day.
U.S. voters, like in no other elections during the past decades, have been flocking to early voting poll stations or sending mail-in ballots in soaring numbers to have their voices heard in an era torn by fundamental challenges.The challenges, including the escalating pandemic and its economic fallout, a divided nation suffering from bitter partisanship, the country’s shifting role on the world stage, and worsening racial inequality and social injustice, will be faced by the next winner of the White House, be it incumbent Republican President Donald Trump or his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
SHADOW OF PANDEMIC
The election is being held in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak which has wrecked havoc in the whole world, with the United States ranking top both in terms of cases and deaths from the disease worldwide. There have been 9.1 million cases and more than 230,000 deaths in the country as of Sunday, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Almost all the U.S. states are trying to push forward the election process safely amid the resurging pandemic, with nearly 100,000 cases reported across the country on Friday, setting a new single-day record for new cases globally. “We’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation,” said Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease expert, on Friday, adding that “as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors … You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”
To make voting easier and safer for their residents, most U.S. states have loosened up criteria for obtaining mail-in ballots and absentee ballots.Nine U.S. states, including California, New Jersey and Washington state, and the District of Columbia, allow ballots to be mailed directly to all their 44 million voters, while 34 states, including the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, allow absentee voting for all their 118 million voters, and seven states, including New York and Texas, allow absentee voting with excuse required for their 46 million voters, according to a New York Times report in mid-August.
State governments have also been taking precautions such as limiting the number of polling stations and spacing out of voting rooms to protect people from contracting or spreading COVID-19, which resulted in long lines and hours of waiting for in-person voters. In San Francisco, where early voting started as early as Oct. 5, the city provided several options for voting including 588 polling places, ballot drop boxes, and the city’s Voting Center, said Mayor London Breed at a press conference in early October.
Every registered voter in San Francisco and the most populous state of California will be sent a vote-by-mail ballot. Those who miss the Oct. 19. voter registration deadline but are still eligible can visit the Voting Center or a polling place to register and cast a provisional ballot, the mayor said. In New York state, where early voting was held for the first time in its history, 1.6 million residents have voted. To make voting easier for people working late shifts, officials opened several polling sites in the third largest U.S. county, Harris County, Texas, for overnight balloting last week. Thousands of people showed up during the peak nighttime hours from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., election officials said.
RECORD VOTER TURNOUT
More than 93 million Americans had already cast their ballots as of Sunday noon, amounting to 67.7 percent of the total votes counted in the 2016 election, according to the United States Election Project.
In the 2016 general election, more than 33 million people voted by mail, nearly a quarter of those who voted, according to a report of Wall Street Journal on Oct. 24. A poll of likely voters conducted by The New York Times and Siena College between Oct. 26 and Oct. 31 showed that many of the voters who said they did not vote in 2016 said they had already cast their ballots this year, pointing to record turnout. In the swing state of Florida, which will likely be a tossup for Trump and Biden according to latest polls, more than two thirds of nonvoters in 2016 who were identified as likely voters this year said they had already voted.
One million New Yorkers have voted early in the city, tweeted Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday, encouraging more voters to turn out to cast their ballots on the final day of the early voting in New York. The mayor joined thousands of New Yorkers to queue up at one of the polling stations and waited for 3.5 hours before casting a ballot one week ahead of election day. In Texas, roughly 57 percent of registered voters voted early as of Saturday, shattering previous turnout records. The 9.6 million Texans voting early led to a 47-percent increase from the number of early voters in the 2016 general election, surpassing total votes in the 2016 election, including on election day, according to USA Today.
POTENTIAL DELAY OF RESULT
While at least in the past 20 years, Americans have become accustomed to hearing who will be their next president on election night, it is highly likely that days or weeks might pass before the outcome is known this year, due to the unmatched shift to early voting.
Officials need to process millions more mail-in ballots than usual, and it could potentially slow down the counting, or even spark disputes as some in the country have claimed that without substantial evidence, voting by mail could pose a risk of fraud.The reality is that most states can begin processing absentee ballots in some form before election day, which could help avoid delays in reporting results, according to a CNN report on Oct. 27.But in three critical battleground states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — officials are not allowed to start processing early ballots until on or just before election day itself, which could delay not just their state results but also, if the Electoral College count is close, potentially leave the whole presidential race up in the air, according to the report.
The Supreme Court has ruled on mail-in votes in Pennsylvania, allowing it to count ballots received three days after election day, as long as the ballots are postmarked before or on Nov. 3. A similar ruling allowed the state’s board of elections in North Carolina to extend the deadline to nine days after election day, up from the three days called for by the state legislature. Counting votes will also take longer than usual because many states will allow extra time for ballots to arrive after election day — as long as they are postmarked on or before Nov. 3. A pending election result might bring chaos or even violence to the country, experts have warned. “Given the various electoral challenges created by the pandemic and the political divisiveness of the moment, a smooth and orderly election night is unlikely,” Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen said in an article posted on the school’s website on Oct. 15.
Experts said that U.S. laws do not require the immediate reporting of all election results in the country on election night. The last time Americans saw a delayed presidential election result was in 2000, when the Supreme Court weighed in on the ruling of the final results of a tight race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
The presidential election results were in a statistical tie between Gore and Bush. The results in Florida were unclear by the end of election night and resulted in a recount and a Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, which ended the dispute in favor of Bush a month later. Gersen said this time, whether Trump or Biden wins, she fears the loser will not fully or immediately accept the results. At that point, she said “the messaging from the candidate and his people will be crucial,” expressing the hope that any disputes can be resolved in courts.