Voting and Demographics in Election 2020

Thursday, October 22, 2020
Mike Blake/REUTERS

Senior Fellow, Brennan Center for Justice


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Theodore R. Johnson, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, discusses the factors that distinguish Election 2020 from previous election cycles, including demographic shifts ​and voting behavior. 

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar. We're delighted to have participants from 43 states and territories with us today. Thank you for being with us. As a reminder, this discussion is on the record. As you know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focusing on U.S. foreign policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, we serve as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. So we're pleased to have Theodore Johnson with us. We previously shared his bio with you, so I'll just give you a few highlights. He is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, where his work explores the role that race plays in electoral politics, issue framing, and disparities in policy outcomes. Previously, Dr. Johnson was a national fellow at New America and a research manager at Deloitte. He is a retired commander in the U.S. Navy following a two-decade career that includes service as a White House fellow, military professor, and speechwriter for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So, Ted, thanks very much for being with us today. We're a few days out from the election. So it would be great if you could talk about what distinguishes this election cycle from previous ones, and any changes that you've noted, through your research on demographics and voting behavior.

JOHNSON: Thank you for having me. And thank you all for tuning in. This is going to be an election, I don't think any of us are going to forget for quite some time, no matter the results, because it follows a year that I don't think many of us are going to forget for quite some time. And the two things are sort of working together to create the dynamics. I think that will define the election that's going to happen here in just a few weeks. But really, the election is already underway. The first thing I want to point out is turnout. Early turnout, early voting, is at a level that has far outpaced and exceeded what we've seen in previous presidential election years. And certainly some of that is due to COVID, and states being a lot more flexible about how they're allowing their constituents to participate. What that means is, the latest estimate I saw was about 160 million Americans are expected to participate in this election, which is, if I remember correctly, maybe 20 million, 10 or 20 million more than last time. These high turnout rates, you know, it doesn't suggest that it advantages one party over another. What we know from non-voters is that those who have traditionally sat out elections look very much like in their political ideology and there partisanship as those who participate. So increasing the turnout in elections, even though both sides may claim advantages them in a particular state or nationally, it really doesn't bake in an advantage inherently. The campaigning of the candidates, the type of advertising that's happening, the conditions in the country have much more of a direct effect. But you can, at the state level, local level, expect for there to be lots and lots of people showing up to vote early, and exploring alternate ways of voting that may not have been available to them previously, or were just less utilized. I live in northern Virginia, this is a pretty well functioning county, and on the first week of early voting, my wife had to wait for three and a half hours to cast her vote. And the reason, one was turnout. But the other, the second reason is what I want to bring up is around COVID. All of the public health requirements that are now in place that are affecting not just how we vote, but the process of voting, you know, once we've determined how we're going to do so. So, for example, here in Virginia, you could only have four people in the election room where you can cast your ballot, which typically meant one person at the ID desk, one person at the ballot desk, one person filling out their ballot, and then one person at the machine. Well, I'm sure as is the case in your states, Virginia has a ballot that is not just the presidential ballot, but a lot of down ballot races and initiatives that come with lots of complex language. So people are taking a lot of time reading the ballot, the president selection is usually the easiest one along with the Senate, but all the ones under that take people a lot more time to complete, especially any bond initiatives. So this creates a back-log and the line stretches out of the door and you're six feet apart. So not only are you out the door, you're out into the parking lot, etc. So with the complications that COVID presents, the process of voting is something that we're all going to have to account for. The more we encourage early voting, mail-in balloting, and the more polling places available will shrink crowd wait times and actually shrink the risk of exposure to the virus because we're not clustering. What we're seeing, though, in many counties and states is the opposite approach taken, because there are not enough poll workers, so there are less polling stations. This means they choose really large venues to hold the polling because they want people to be able to socially distance, and that turns into longer wait times which often can increase exposure. So the balancing of COVID, public health concerns, along with the process of voting, will be a challenge. And then finally, the third thing is the demographics of this electorate. It proves to be probably the most diverse electorate we've seen. This will be the first presidential election where Hispanic Americans are the largest non-white bloc of voters participating. And even though they are the largest voting eligible one, they tend to be on the younger side who have lower voter turnout. So though Black Americans will be the second largest non-white bloc of voters, their turnout will be second only to white Americans. And if, again, the projections I've seen suggest that Black turnout may be back to levels it saw in 2008, which would compete for the highest levels of turnout with white Americans. And then Asian Americans, though they are a smaller bloc of voters than Black, white, or Hispanic Americans, they are the fastest growing when it comes to voter turnout. So they're a smaller group, but they're increasing their participation in our democracy at a faster rate than any other bloc of voters. And so this mix of a new largest non-white bloc, a potentially high participatory rate of Black Americans, and the fastest growing rate of participation among Asian American voters, mixed with the white Americans still being the largest bloc and the highest participatory rate, you know, competing with Black voters there. This is going to be an election unlike any that we've seen. And I think that's a good sign for our country that we're bringing more people into the process. That more people are willing and interested in participating as, again, as we're seeing in our early voting states, and that the choices they make will be reflective of their view of the state of the country following racial justice protests over the summer, following an economy that's been up and down, following a public health crisis that's not just been national, but global. There's a sense that getting the country back on track, no matter what your vision is for taxes, or regulatory reform, this is the sort of need to feel that the country is stable, and functioning, and coming back together is the thing that's driving a lot of folks’ choices when they when they go to vote. I think they will be voting mostly on the vision for America that they have, and hoping that their candidate prevails.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you, Ted, we really appreciate that. Why don't we open now to questions and comments from the group and then we can continue the conversation. So in the bottom of your screen, there's a Participants icon you can raise your hand there, or if you're on a tablet, click on the More button and you'll see the Raise Hand option there. So, just looking to see if anybody's raised their hand yet. And we do, we have a question from Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. Please tell us where you are for context.

Q: Right. I’m the mayor of Easthampton, Massachusetts. One word, we're not near an ocean. We're in western Massachusetts, near Springfield. So leave Boston on I-90 and drive about 95 minutes and you're in the Pioneer Valley, near UMass Amherst and Amherst College and whatnot. The point that really made my ears prick up was—and when I was younger I was very politically involved in campaigns and getting out the vote—when you were talking about these numbers, these high early voting numbers, voting by mail numbers. We always, you know, we would say, so early voting is up and in a highly contentious race that means it's more to the left, like middle of the road left, than it is middle of the road right. But what I'm hearing you say is, don't put as much weight on that in this particular election?

JOHNSON: So that's a great question. The point I was trying to make is that when more voters participate in elections, the number of voters, the quantity that participate, doesn't necessarily advantage one party over the other based on the leanings of non-voters. But for this election and the method of voting, we are seeing some trends. Traditionally, mail-in balloting is used by older white voters, which tends to advantage Republicans. This cycle, we're seeing, I think, three to one voters who lean Democrat using early voting and mail-in balloting as their preferred method, which means that it won't be a wash on the back end. Usually, whatever the polls show on election night, the mail-in ballots will just be a reflection, maybe on some small margins here or there. This time around, I don't think that's the case. This is really important for a number of reasons, a couple of I’ll try to lay out quickly. One is that we're used to going to bed the night of the election knowing who the president will be, or certainly waking up Wednesday morning and having a winner declared. As you all know, every state doesn't necessarily count mail-in ballots or absentee ballots before Election Day. In fact, in some states, they wait until after the polls have closed on Election Day before they start counting those ballots that were submitted by other means. So we have candidates declaring victory on Wednesday morning by saying look, in the past, the absentee ballots have traditionally not favored one party much more than another, I'm up by three points, there's no way that my opponent can make up that gap. Therefore, I'm declaring victory. That may not be the case this year, depending on election night results. So we are seeing Democrats use —and mostly it's younger Democrats and people of color —that are using mail-in and early voting at rates higher than we've seen in previous presidential election years.

FASKIANOS: And Ted, hasn’t it been—you said traditionally it's been white Republicans who have used mail-in —and there's been a lot of talk about how Republicans now are not doing mail-in, they're going to vote on the day. What is the analysis on that front?

JOHNSON: Yeah, so the whole issue has been politicized. Look, we know voter fraud—my organization has looked into voter fraud, both in-person, absentee, and mail-in, and the incidence of voter fraud is about .0025%, which means it's about one in 40,000. So it happens, but not at scale. Not enough to completely, you know, revamp and revise voting processes. It's about the same likelihood of being hit by a meteor at some point in your life. So this is, this is not and this is not just for Americans, for like anyone in the world at some point being hit by a meteor. It's the same incidence of voter fraud happening in the United States. So voter fraud is not an issue. But, it is a good talking point when you can scare people or create anxieties or fear that the election will be stolen, that your vote won't be counted, that your ballot will be lost, either accidentally or on purpose. When the Post Office is politicized, when all of these things are sort of thrown into the pot of national hyper-partisanship, then it does have the effect of depressing people, the voting behaviors of people who would traditionally use one form of voting. But it also can have the impact of encouraging or inspiring people to participate who maybe would not have, because they feel like their voice is trying to be muted, or they might choose to participate in a way they previously wouldn't have. Here's an example. I'm from North Carolina. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Black voters there, two thirds of Black voters traditionally vote early. One of the big voting drives in North Carolina among Black voters is through the Black church. And they would do this this drive called Souls to the Polls, where after church, the church would have buses, and they would drive the parishioners from the church to the local polling station, and everyone would cast their vote and then go back to the church. And so early voting was a preferred method, but this time we're seeing a lot more voters of color in North Carolina and really across the country prefer mail-in balloting or standing in line to vote early and not waiting for, you know, the Sunday. Really because there is no Sunday church because of coronavirus. And so the politicization of mail-in balloting in the Postal Service has actually, for those that don't like how the president has politicized it, have decided to use it as an expression of faith. And then for those that typically would use it, but believe the president is accurate in saying that this is a way for fraud to happen or for one party to undermine the other, have now chosen to participate in more traditional methods. And so that skews what political science says about who votes how and when, which will make calling the election on election night a more difficult proposition, but will also require some patience among the citizenry, so that if states begin to flip on Thursday evening, two days after the election that doesn't ring of funny business, but simply the natural outcome of new processes.

FASKIANOS: Great. So we have a written question from Signe Friedrichs, who's a council member in Herndon Town, Virginia. “What are you seeing? Is there any new information about possible violence?” And that's all that said there. I guess at the polls and all of that, I think there have been some stories about voter intimidation.

JOHNSON: That's right. Yeah. So this is a real issue. It is not as widespread as it may seem on social media, but it is happening. In fact, just yesterday, a group in Florida, I believe, showed up to a polling station with guns and in black attire, saying that they were hired by the Trump campaign to watch voters. A Trump spokesman came out and said, that's just not true, we didn't commission any security forces to show up at the polls. And so a lot of folks who may feel like the vote of the election is going to be stolen, or that, you know, undocumented people may participate, or that there may be double counting or funny business and districts that represent different parties or lean politically in different directions than theirs. They're sort of appointing themselves defenders of the realm, and showing up to protect polling locations. Again, this is not widespread, but we've seen threats of it. And we've actually seen instances of it. And Pennsylvania, for example, we have filed suit against one of the parties there who are encouraging their supporters in the middle part of their state, to go to places like Philadelphia and certain parts of Pittsburgh, armed and in camouflage, not make any threats, but just be present at these precincts. And we know based on all the political science research that the presence of folks who aren't from your community, who are armed, and not policemen can have the effect of voter intimidation and deter people from the polls. Voter intimidation is illegal, it's not permitted. And so if your constituents file reports, or notify you that this is happening, then law enforcement should be notified immediately so that they will remove those folks who are trying to intimidate folks. Now, one of the other concerns, and this is probably one of the more primary concerns around violence is after the election, if a person's preferred candidate loses, or a movement preferred candidate or some, you know, militia or other sort of extra governmental organization, if their person loses that they will take to the streets and demand recounts or demand, you know, some sort of reckoning for the election being stolen or whatever. I am less worried about that here. Not that that won't happen, but that if it does happen, it will be quickly put down by local law enforcement. I don't think it behooves anyone at the local, state, or national level, no matter what side of the aisle you are on, and no matter what institution you belong to, to encourage violence or to turn a blind eye to it. And so I do think that, should violence happen, it will be put down quickly, I don't think that it's going to be organized in any real scale nationally. And so I think we're in a good spot there. What will be most important in this moment is national leadership. Should something catch fire, leadership tamping it down and restoring the public's faith in its public servants and first responders will be absolutely essential to keep the temperature low. And that's something I think we can all contribute to. There is a very small, minute, remote possibility that things might get out of hand, but that's no different after this election, I think then, you know, some of the other uprisings we've seen over the last several decades.

FASKIANOS: Great. Let's go next to Gary Scarpello. And if you could identify yourself, that would be great and unmute yourself.

Q: Okay, good. Sorry. I got it straight. Okay, how you doing? I'm glad you're here. Thanks for your insights. My wife is also from North Carolina, I’m up here in Pennsylvania, but from Gaston just north of South Carolina. Yeah, the Piedmont area. She just loved the weather growing up there as a kid. I'm a township commissioner in Upper Dublin Township, Pennsylvania. My question was about violence as well. And we are instructed by our police chief to call 911 if things get out of hand. And Pennsylvania law, I don't know how it works throughout the whole country, I just know what it is here in Pennsylvania, the police cannot really go into the polling area unless it is really a dramatic situation. But we're, we're ready to go. I mean, our police chief is on board and you know,  they're ready to go call 911. And they're going to be right there to defuse the situation. But I have a follow up question about that, after the election, possible turmoil. I'm quite concerned about that, especially since you made that example of Pennsylvania. Too close for my comfort that, you know, you got those hoodlums showing up. You know, what, what will happen? And I, your logic rings true to me that that law enforcement, I think, will step up. Because my township is stepping up there. They say call 911 immediately, and they'll be there to defuse. So I think you're right once the election is up, but it is the crucial number of days between the election and when the votes are tallied in Pennsylvania, where these shenanigans could occur. When there's no clear victory, and especially if Biden wins, a little bit later, you may see an explosion. But I think you're right, I think the police are ready to go. And I think, by the number of Republican generals, and sailors, commanders and so forth, who have come out and gone against Trump and said, hey, this is beyond the pale, I think systemically through law enforcement and on the political leadership, back to your point, I think is right on.

JOHNSON: Yeah. So that, you know, on the point of the military, the military will not get involved in this. And I mean, I think it will, it will have to be utter, complete national catastrophe and chaos, for it even to be, you know, considered because the military is very, very sensitive to overstepping its bounds and seeming like it's playing a role in the election. But two quick points. One, voter intimidation usually happens outside of the polling station in the parking lot, in the driveway to the entrance of the polling location, and not inside the doors, where the ballots are and where people are actually voting. So police can defuse situations that are happening outside of the building. But I think once you get into the building, then that's when the rules become a little stickier. Because again, their presence can sometimes be construed as intimidation or otherwise. But here's the other thing. Police are, their main job is to ensure sort of safety and security for the community. And allowing this violence to happen is in service of no one, to include constituents and poll workers, etc, who want the election to go off well. But here's how COVID may throw a wrinkle in some of this. Police are being called a lot because the folks who are not wearing masks in places where ordinances say you must be masked. And so if you live in a state that says if you're in a public location, you must have a mask on, DC is one, Virginia is another, which means if you're going to vote, you need to be wearing a mask. Someone who says I don't want to wear a mask, because I feel like it's a violation of my constitutional rights or I have a medical condition, police are not getting involved in those kinds of disputes. And so what we don't know is, should someone decline to wear a mask and then be told that they can't exercise their right to vote. What happens then? And that is not a criminal matter, it's not a matter of voter intimidation. But it's in one of those gray areas where the a city or state ordinance or regulation bumps up against the exercise of a state constitutional right, and begins to look like voter intimidation, which is unconstitutional and not permitted. What happens then, and so to the extent in your leadership roles, you're able to close that gap or erase some of that ambiguity. So people, poll workers especially, know how to respond to this particular kind of incident given this current climate and public health issue. That will go a long way to ensuring a smooth process.

FASKIANOS: That's a great point. I'm going to follow on with a written question from Nancy Waters, who's the Muskegon County clerk. She says in Michigan, the secretary of state has said no open carry in precincts, but that is not Michigan's law and our local prosecuting attorney has advised our clerks to allow people in with open carry and bring them in to vote as quickly as possible. What should we do?

JOHNSON: Yeah. So there are a number of states that are having this issue. I think in Virginia, where I am, this is also being challenged. So we all remember a few weeks ago on cable news every night, we would see the Michigan State House with policemen lined up with masks, and in front of them would be militia folks, you know, folks in hunting gear etc, armed, inside the state capitol demanding an audience with officials for repealing of mask ordinances, etc. Open carry in the statehouse, as was mentioned here, that was permitted. Well, now the governor has said, on Election Day, you can't do that, you can't open carry on government grounds because of fears of voter intimidation. And because they don't want conditions that may descend into violence. And some groups see this as a violation of their second amendment rights. Why is something that's permitted on every other day of the year suddenly not permitted today, because of an election? So all that I know that can be done, there's two things that can be done. One, there are nonprofit groups, groups that are fighting, frankly, on both sides. And whatever side of the argument you fall on, you can support those groups and their legal arguments to have injunctions or stays or whatever so that your viewpoint can be exercised. But the biggest thing is the governor has executive authority in every state. And many times if they declare Election Day, it's something akin not to an emergency, not a natural disaster, but of such importance that emergency powers have to be exercised, then really, the state supreme court is going to have to tell that governor, that is an unapproved, unconstitutional use of your executive power. And I will say, if I am the governor of Michigan, a plot the FBI has uncovered a plot to kidnap me, to harm me, because of the party I belong to, and because of you know, my political leanings and comments. If that isn't an indication that violence might be a problem—I think the FBI rounded up six, seven, or eight people—then she seems to have all the justification in the world to suggest that violence on Election Day might be closer than we like. And that guns in that mix is terrible for everyone. Even if you are a strong proponent of strong Second Amendment protections, you still don't want violence on Election Day to happen. And so, you know, to the extent that the governor's actions create a safer environment for us to participate in our democracy, I think that's good. But really, this is a fight that's going to be left in the next two weeks between executive branch and the judicial branch at the various levels.

FASKIANOS: Right. And there's a comment from Michael Radke, who's a councilman in Sterling Heights, Michigan that it wasn't the governor, it was the secretary of state and the attorney general who talked about the open carry, who said no open carry in the precinct.

JOHNSON: Right. Right. It was the governor was the subject of the kidnapping plot, but it would have to be a governor's order, I believe, to ban open carry or the carrying of guns on government grounds on Election Day. But that is right, that secretaries of state, they were the ones that were sort of advocating for this and publicizing it.

FASKIANOS: Great. Okay, so just wanted to clarify. I'm going to go back to Mayor LaChapelle, who's raised her hand again, so happy to have you come back on and as a follow on comment or a new question.

Q: Oh, yeah. Thank you so much for this content, Irina and Dr. Johnson, it’s just spot on what I need to figure out. So as far as calling the results, from what I'm following with all these different ways to vote and just by process, it might not just be at close of the polls you run the report. Do you see— and I'm just trying to figure this out and we're going to put a public statement together about this. So instead of looking at social media and the TV, and projections of polls that from what I understand might be skewed because of all these different ways people are voting. What I take away is that our best source is going back to our secretaries of state?

JOHNSON: Yeah, that's a great question. And so if you are a government official, without a doubt, your secretary of state look, frankly, in this election as in previous elections, will be determined by the secretaries of state in the different states. They are the backbone of this election system, and their reports are going to carry lots of weight and their reports are the things that the studios, the media, they all are going to use to sort of make their projections. So I would absolutely stick with their projections or their numbers. And no matter what media says about how divided the country is along partisan lines, which is true, when you get to state and local levels—and you guys know this better than I do—a lot of that goes away. And that division doesn't feel as acute and as immediate as it does when we're watching cable news. And so when secretaries of state across the country are saying we have not yet completed our count, Americans should be should feel good about that response, and not feel like well that secretary of state works for a Republican governor, or this one worked for a Democratic governor and therefore they can't be trusted. In some states they're appointed and other states they're elected. So but Americans shouldn't let that cloud their judgment. But here's the hard part, folks are going to be tuned into Facebook, Twitter, and all of the cable news outlets. Those cable news outlets are going to have panels of eight to ten people, you know, the punditry is going to be out of control pontificating on this or that. My organization along with others have gone to talk to executives at all the broadcast networks, and most of the cable news networks to warn them, do not condition your audience to expect the result before they go to bed. Better yet, conditioned them not to expect a result for a few days. And that way, if you go in with that, your anchors and your guests should also repeat that. And then people will be conditioned to have rational, reasonable expectations of when we might know the outcome. The hard part of this is that cable news goes off of entertainment, the bickering and the debating. And I guarantee you, there will be folks that say I just talked to my buddy at such and such county and this swing state, and he tells me that he's never seen Republican turnout like this before, or she tells me that the Democratic turnout in this usually purple district has been out of control. And so that's going to happen and people are going to tune in to that. But the message must be from the leadership and then from sort of these hosts, that the process should be trusted and that we may not know results for some time. And we're just going to have to educate people to accept that reality and not fall victim to the punditry or declarations from candidates that this thing is over, I won, even when evidence to the contrary is either present or will show up in short order.

FASKIANOS: Great, thank you. So we have a couple of written questions. I'll take the first one, and I think you touched on this, but if you could give a little bit more from Christine DiCosimo, she's a district director for Texas State Representative of Briscoe Cain. She says since more people are voting by mail, do you think mail-in ballot fraud will go up?

JOHNSON: So it's hard to say, but I think voter fraud isn't the primary concern. I think the primary concern with increased mail-in balloting are incorrectly completed mail-in ballots. And that is far more of an issue than fraud will be. We know this because the states like Washington State, I think Colorado now does mail-in balloting pretty regularly. They have not seen an increase in voter fraud once they introduced mail-in balloting. In fact, they saw an increase in participation by folks who traditionally don't vote, like those under thirty or who are college students. So everything we know about mail-in balloting, even in those places where that's the sole way to vote, suggests that voter fraud does not increase but rather participation by citizens increases. So it's a net good by far. But what we are seeing, every state has different rules around their mail-in balloting. And some states like California, they allow ballot harvesting, which means a person can go around and collect the ballots of people and then they have to sign that I have collected these ballots have not altered them and then they can turn them in. And this means that some boxes that are not set by the state, but that are put in place by the parties are popping up in California, they're marked official but they're not really official. They're basically ballot harvesting boxes. Is there a higher incidence or chance of fraud from ballot harvesting than from official mail-in balloting? All of the data suggests that if there is an increased risk, it's so minute that it's basically zero, it's negligible, and we don't know with coronavirus what new risks that introduces. The bigger risk though is incomplete ballots that are not completed correctly. If you sign in the wrong place, they can be rejected. If the dates are in the wrong place or your name is not legible, it can be rejected. In some states—I think Pennsylvania is another one, I don't mean to pick on Pennsylvania so much—but I think that ballots there, your mail-in ballot has to be in a privacy sleeve between the ballot itself. And then the thing is the envelope you mail it in. And without that privacy sleeve, your ballot isn't counted. And so this is the bigger threat, especially for folks who don't traditionally use mail-in ballots and this is their first time, they may be unfamiliar with doing it correctly. And so the risk of an incorrectly filled ballot at scale is the bigger risk. A few states, California, North Carolina, allow you to track your ballot once you've mailed it in. And then they will tell you whether it was received and successfully recorded or if there was a problem and you need to recast your ballot. And if you decide to recast your ballot, the one they received will be destroyed. And then you'll be sent a new ballot that you can correct the error on and then resubmit it and track it through. The more state and local governments that are doing this tracking, the better it will be to sort of restore faith and integrity in the system to constituents. Even if this cycle it might be too late to do so.

FASKIANOS: Let's take a question from Enrique Navarro, who works for a city council member in San Jose, California.

Q: Hi, guys. Yeah, my name is Enrique Navarro. I work for Councilmember Johnny Khamis in the city of San Jose, California from the Bay Area, so go Sharks! So you know, the last person I think kind of touched on my question, I don't want to beat a dead horse. But I just wanted to go back, I guess to a broader sense of election security. And there's a lot of discussion about like foreign meddling and whatnot. And any I guess, you know, my question has to deal with, you know, what do you think are the merits of having voter ID? And as it relates also to mail-in balloting, right? Because you can't necessarily check IDs on a mail-in ballot. And then there's also questions of chain of custody, like, you know, somebody who's harvesting,  they don't have to necessarily sign the part like the person receiving the ballot at the other end will never know if it was harvested or not. So that leaves the custody concerns. And in the event that there is obviously voter fraud, like .05%, I think you said. So we know from the example of 2016, how Michigan was won by a factor of like 11,000 votes, we have very, very, very narrow races. And also in California, where we're from, we have like eight competitive house seats that always seemed to get determined, like three weeks after the election. And then there's also concerns that it always goes in one party's particular favor. But anyway, so I was curious, knowing that, what are your thoughts on how all these things contribute to the security of very, very, very narrow, divisive races like voter ID, chain of custody, not knowing who's the authenticator of a mail-in ballot? And then whatever fraud there is, how does that work?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it's a hard question. I mean, it's essentially, how do all of the margins, the places where there could be errors, when compounded, how does that affect the outcome of close elections? And we just don't know. We do know that voter fraud doesn't flip elections at scale. Certainly, I mean, if there's a school board race and 150 people vote, maybe. But when it comes to congressional districts and state races, certainly presidential races, fraud just isn't enough to flip. To your question about foreign interference, this is a really important question, especially with Iran and Russia both being cited over the last several days of trying to meddle in the American electoral process. And here's what I’ll say. And look, I did twenty years of cyber stuff in the military before retiring, so I've seen this from both sides. Number one is, take heart in how antiquated our voting system is. Because it's almost impossible for a foreign nation to jump into cyberspace and hack the whole thing. There are voting systems that are less sophisticated than Ms. Pac-Man arcade machines from the 1980s. And so trying to reach that from your laptop in Moscow is extremely difficult. Floppy disks, hard disks are still a thing, physical access, it makes hacking these old machines a little bit harder. But gaining physical access means a whole level of espionage and entry that I don't know is worth the 300 votes collected at a particular high school. So it's almost impossible to hack a presidential election, because the national nature of the election consists of dozens of states and territories, and hundreds of thousands of different precincts collecting votes in different ways, tallying them in different ways, using different systems with different software. And it's just impossible to hack, you know, at scale for sure. The bigger concern is the erosion of Americans’ faith in our political processes and in the election and our democracy itself. We do know from 2016 that the propaganda, the misinformation, disinformation from other nations, did serve to depress the voter turnout with certain communities. And so that impacted more communities than voter fraud ever would. And even that voter, the implementation of voter ID statutes, for example, would deter fraud. I think in places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Black voter participation was down 12%. And we know from data dumps from Cambridge Analytica and other data analytics firms, that Black Americans in those cities in particular were targeted with messages meant to deter them from participating at all, not to try to win them to Clinton’s side or Trump’s side, but to tell them to stay home. And to some extent, coupled with other issues, that worked. And like you said, Michigan was decided by a very close margin. And that had more to do with misinformation, disinformation, and the lack of faith in our systems, than voter ID requirements or protection against fraud. You know, when it comes to ID requirements, some states you don't have to have ID at all, Montana, I think Alaska, and in places like Maine or Vermont prisoners can vote while in prison. In other places, you have to have the correct form of ID in Texas, a gun license is good, but a University of Texas student ID isn't good, even though both are government issue. So I don't know that that means Texas has a more secure election than Montana, or that Florida has a more secure election than Maine or Vermont. But the disparate nature of our voting laws prevents hacking and screwing around with it from having the effect the hacker may intend. But it's harder to comment on —even in close races —whether voter IDs or the chain of custody would result in flipped elections if done in different ways.

FASKIANOS: Ted, you this brought up and there was a chat about the FBI coming out yesterday talking about Iran and Russia tampering in our election. And we obviously have more awareness of this now from the 2016 election. So do you think this time around, the Russians or other foreign interference will be effective in depressing the vote? Or do you think that there's enough of an understanding that this happened in 2016, and people are just going to tune it out?

JOHNSON: So people are certainly more aware this time around because of 2016, and all the investigations and conversations that have happened. So whereas some might have been caught flat footed in 2016, I think that's less likely to happen in 2020. But I think the game is going to be propaganda in this cycle. And I don't know if people are less susceptible to that propaganda. And, if the mask debate in the United States suggests anything, it is that we are more susceptible to the rhetoric of our leaders and are more willing to push aside what scientists may say, or what the facts may say, what the data may show. And so this is where this is a problem. You know, this tactic is called information warfare in the military business, that's the word for it, it goes back to Sun Tzu, who wrote a whole book about how to trick your enemy into doing the thing you want him to do so that you don't even have to try to compel the person to do the thing by force. And so what information warfare says is that, I don't have to hack your voting machines, I don't have to try to penetrate your electoral system, I will just tell the voter what I want them to do. I will create conditions or make them believe something that isn't true or is an exaggerated truth, so that their response is the is the thing that's favorable to whatever my aims are. This is something that, on our computers, it's the same way. No one's trying to hack into your laptop anymore. What they're trying to do is get you to open an email, and you voluntarily click on a link that grants them access. So the fault wasn't your system, or the antivirus software, the fault was that it was sort of the uncritical nature by which you interrogated this strange email that came into your queue and then gave them access. Similarly, when it comes to our elections, the easiest way to influence elections on the margins is to convince voters to make choices that they wouldn't otherwise make, whether it's to get up and participate or to not participate at all, or to switch their support from one candidate to another. And in 2016, I think that worked on the margins with third party voters, with voters who decided to exit the election, and 2016 was decided by 77,000 voters over three states. And because of how the Electoral College works, and in close elections, it could have an effect. What I think will be different at this time is the increased level of voter participation suggests that people are a little bit more passionate about what's happening, but also that it bodes well for the election, maybe not being as close as 2016 was. And in elections that aren't close, either at the state level or nationally, then these disinformation and propaganda attempts on the margins don't usually have the desired effect.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. So we have a chat question from Michael Cady, who is a county supervisor in Vilas County, Wisconsin, who says if the polling places aren't prepared for each and every voter to vote on Election Day, that's a problem, isn't it?

JOHNSON: Yes, it is. And usually what happens is, if people are in line and the polling place closes, almost always the judge that is appealed to will say, for those who are in line the polling place has to stay open and they can vote, but no new people can show up. But, if you have not cast your vote by Election Day, I don't think there's much else you can do. In many states, I think over a dozen states, they have same day registration, where even if you're not registered if you can make it to the polling station before it closes, you can register and cast your ballot all at the same time. And those states that don't have it, you can still go and cast a provisional ballot, which will just require that voters follow up with their election officials to prove they are who they say they are, that they are eligible so that their vote will be counted. But if you've not sort of met your locality’s deadline to participate, there's not a whole lot that can be done after that moment. There may be some exceptions by state based on how much coronavirus precautions have impacted the planning that has gone into how late polling stations are open. One example of this I think is in Texas over the summer, they kept a polling station open until like midnight, because they had closed polling stations. And the word hadn't gotten out, you know, in enough time, and lots of people were in line. And they just decided that, you know, we're going to keep it open to people up to midnight, so people in line up to the last person got to cast their ballot. But that will be based on the judge and the precinct and the locality. But writ large, the better approach is to use one of the alternative forms early. I hope that answers the question.

FASKIANOS: I think so. But Michael followed up with a chat, saying with the virus going on, they reduced the number of polling places. Is that voter suppression? I mean, the obvious case that comes to mind is in Texas where a lot of the polling places have been reduced. Yeah. So is that voter suppression?

JOHNSON: This is hard. Yeah, this is really hard. The civil rights activist Reverend Barber has said that Jim Crow didn't retire. He just went to law school. And now he's James Crow, Esquire. And the point he's making there is that a lot of really explicitly racist ways of depriving people of the right to vote in previous decades, have now been entrenched in law in ways that look very colorblind with universal application, but have a disproportionate impact on certain communities. So here's the hard part about the colorblind nature of voter suppression laws, even though they have a very color conscious impact, is that something like coronavirus allows folks who may be interested in voter suppression to use coronavirus protections as a way of disguising their voter suppression objectives or mission. And so if a state says, we're closing all polling places, and they said that a decade ago, that would no doubt be voter suppression. And a decade ago, many states would have had to go through the Department of Justice to get preclearance to follow through on that order because of the protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, if they say we're closing it because we don't want to spread coronavirus, it's hard to say no, no, no increase the number of people and places where people can gather and stand for time and interact with one another by trading papers and speaking to one another and not socially distancing. It's hard to say that's voter suppression when you're following all the laws, rules, and regulations that the CDC has put forward and that state and local governments have put forward to keep people safe. So it is not voter suppression to protect your population, your voters from contracting the virus, but people who are interested in voter suppression will no doubt co-opt those public health measures as a way of doing that voter suppression, and the telltale sign is also in Texas. There, they had to close all of the early ballot drop boxes, except for one in each county because of virus concerns. But then when they said, well let's have drive through ballot drop offs, then one of the parties there said, no, no, you can't do that. That's illegal. That's not, you know, prescribed in our voting laws. And so one measure that is supposed to make the population safe is acceptable, because it reduces receptacles. But another way that would keep the population safe by letting them vote from their car is not acceptable, because you know, it's outside of our agreed upon statutory rules. And so the incongruence on responses to a public health crisis will sort of tell you whether or not that new law or regulation that's been put in place was done so to keep people safe, or to shake the electorate in a way that advantages one party or the other.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. So we have a question from Kayla Klauer. She's a district staffer for Assembly Member Robert Rivas in California's 30th Assembly District. In states where they do not track mail-in ballots or send notifications to voters who have an error on their ballot, do you think that will increase the risk of votes not being counted due to errors such as signature not being matched? They're seeing a higher rate of vote by mail ballots in this election. So she's curious to know if the vote by mail errors specifically in states that do not offer ballot tracking will have any significant effect on the election results. And she says and thanks very much for this fantastic webinar.

JOHNSON: To your question, it is really hard to say because every state does it differently. Even though states that don't allow the online tracking to let you know it was received and recorded successfully, the other states have different ways of acknowledging receipt or not acknowledging at all, you just sort of send it into the void and hope that it counted. Maybe you can check your voter registration to see, you know, if you are recorded as having participated, instead of just being registered to participate, but the real answer is the inconvenient one. And it's that we just don't know how many votes are going to be lost because they were filled out incorrectly, or they were deemed to be improperly completed. And not in terms of accuracy, but in terms of like a signature not matching or something like that and the voter was never notified of that. And I don't know the procedures in each state, so I don't know which states are better at this or which ones are worse. But what could happen is essentially the hanging chad fiasco of 2000, where you had people sort of examining, you know which chad was punched out and which circle is completely filled out or partially filled out in one race or the other one. There's essentially the vote by mail version of that is at risk of happening this time. The good news is in every election, we have these kinds of error rates, again, of the machine not reading a bubble filled out correctly, or a checkmark instead of an x or whatever. And voting by mail doesn't necessarily increase those sort of error margins, it just introduces a new way that errors can occur. And so it remains to be seen whether or not that increases the overall error to a point where an election outcome can be changed. But I think, again, by referencing vote by mail states, we just haven't seen the introduction of new voting methods result in such discrepancies that the voting results are called into question. And that may just be, you know, a dent of luck. And maybe our luck is going to run out this time around, but here again, I would go back to the point from the mayor earlier, that the secretaries of state will be absolutely critical to this question and resolving these issues. So to the extent you can engage with them, figure out the rules for the state, and then apply pressure to ensure it's done correctly, I think you're better served doing that ahead of time and those relationships may bear fruit afterwards.

FASKIANOS: So Ted, you talked about the change, the demographic change, with Hispanics and Black Americans and Asian Americans. What about younger voters?

JOHNSON: Yeah, so we'll see. Younger voters typically do not turn out, by younger I mean under thirty, do not turn out at the same rate as those voters over forty-five, and that goes for every race and ethnicity in the country. I do think we've seen instances where younger voters are encouraged or are sort of inspired to participate. And that inspiration doesn't endure, but it does arise. And so I do think this cycle, we will see an increase of young voters’ participation in this election over 2016. Some of that will be young voters who tend to be more polarized. And you're thinking like, if they're on the left, they tend to be very hardcore left. And if they're on the right, they tend to be very hardcore there. And this isn't an election to sit out if you're one of those two things because of how distant the two parties are now. I think the radical rhetoric is increasingly agitated. And when young voters are angry, they tend to want to act, where in other communities like Black voters, anger isn't the mobilizing force. It’s actually optimism and inspiration, or a sense that their agency is being discounted, and they want to show that they are equal participants in our democracy by overcoming whatever obstacles arise. But making Black voters angry isn't a way to increase their participation at the polls in the way that is for younger voters. The last thing I'll say on this is in 2008, Obama was able to inspire lots and lots of new voters, young voters, to the polls, and he won the election handily as a result. But in 2012, the under thirty vote dropped by almost 10%, and among Black Americans, I think it was like 9.7% of those under thirty young voters who participated in 2008 not participating in 2012. But it was matched by over forty-five voters improving on their participation even over the rates that we saw in 2008. So 2016 saw a national drop off in participation. My sense is in 2020 there will be a rebound among all segments of the electorate. And I think the young voter portion of the electorate will be one of the most robust sort of rebounds in terms of participation.

FASKIANOS: And we've seen that Barack Obama is on the campaign trail now, so he is out and I just watched a clip of him making a very forceful case, which, you know, he's really been very careful about using his voice over the past few years. So it's interesting to see how that will affect the vote.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Obama is famous for saying don't boo, vote. And I think a lot of young people are saying, no, we're going to do both. We're going to boo, and we're going to vote. So we're going to protest, we're going to keep calling our senator, we're going to continue marching in the streets and doing all the ways of exerting external pressure on the system, and we're going to register and show up at the polls. And to me, that sounds like a well-functioning democracy.

FASKIANOS: Excellent. Well with that, we will leave it there. If there are any last words you want to leave with this group who are working hard in their communities to ensure that everybody is aware and Election Day is calm and civil in the days after as we sit and wait for votes to be counted.

JOHNSON: Yeah, very quickly, I think the biggest thing is to tell your constituents to have a plan to vote. With all that we've talked about mail-in balloting and early voting and polling locations and acceptable IDs, the rules for participation are kind of getting complex and a little convoluted. And so to the extent you can lay out exactly everything that the people that live in your area need to do, in order to have their vote counted successfully, do it. And tell people to have that plan to double check their mail-in ballots, if the wait times are long in your precinct, then to you know, be prepared to wait for the hour or two hours, whatever, but have the plan. The second thing is if they run into problems, they tried to cast a vote and someone is denying them or there's voter intimidation or a poll worker won't give them a ballot or whatever. There are a number of resources out there that they can call on the spot. One of them is 1-866-OUR-VOTE. It is a hotline, I think run by the ACLU maybe, but it has chapters around the country lawyers on standby. And they are there waiting in multiple languages also, and they are there waiting to hear voters’ problems to give them advice on what can be done to ensure their votes are counted, to include notifying law enforcement or notifying judges of irregularities, etc. And then the last thing I'll say if you're looking for resources, or data, statistics about anything I've talked about, go to BrennanCenter.org. We've got all the research that talks about voter fraud, that talks about the effects of voter ID, that talks about mail-in balloting and its best practices, and areas for improvement. All of that is empirical research, it's nonpartisan, it's not meant for profit. It's all there just to ensure our systems of democracy are strong and resilient, and freely available to you and your staffs to put to use to make your districts and states and localities better.

FASKIANOS: That's great. Just one follow up on that hotline. Michael Cady had written earlier that some places try to estimate how many ballots to order, and sometimes they run out. So if a voter goes to the poll, and they say we have no more ballots, can you call that number?

JOHNSON: That's exactly right. Yeah. I'm not sure what happens in that situation, if they like, bus in ballots from another location, or they close that location and send folks to other places. But this number would know exactly what the voters’ rights are in that situation and the responsibilities of the state in that instance.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. So Ted Johnson, thanks very much for today's webinar, you've been fantastic. And to all of you for your great questions. And of course, all the work that you're doing in your communities, I think we all really appreciate it. It's hard, especially with a pandemic layered on all of us. So you can follow Ted on twitter @DrTedJ, I will also circulate the link to this video and transcript as well as the resources from the Brennan Center website so that you can have access to it after the fact. And I hope you know we’re here at CFR are to continuing to support the work that you're doing. So please send any suggestions of topics and speakers to [email protected]. You can also access information on our website CFR.org about voting and of course the pandemic and a whole host of international relations topics. So thank you all again, stay safe and well, and the countdown begins.


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