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The machinery of American democracy is working

The New York Times – “This article is part of Democracy by Mail, a series following the absentee-ballot process from printing to mailing to counting: “…But for the most part, mail-in balloting — and balloting at the polls, too — went smoothly and revealed two competing truths: The machinery of American democracy is working, its many interlocking parts functioning, thanks in large part to the legion of state and local officials who make it all go. And yet at the same time, the administration of elections — as well as the right to vote — is fragile and facing renewed threat. America’s pandemic election was a remarkable, unlikely feat. “The challenges and obstacles were perhaps the highest in history, or at least since the Spanish Flu in 1918, and we saw fewer problems than in any presidential election since Bush v. Gore,” said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and co-director of the Stanford-M.I.T. Healthy Elections Project. This spring, there were warning signs that with the coronavirus spreading, swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan would not be able to set up and run a vote-by-mail operation of unprecedented scale while simultaneously staffing thousands of polling places among them. The checklists were long and logistically complex. The resources were lacking. Asked for $4 billion, Congress allocated $400 million. Election officials in states like Washington and Colorado, where voting by mail is nearly universal, told me that it took them multiple election cycles to get it right. Some primary elections this year underscored the doubts by going badly, with election offices sending thousands of absentee ballots too late to be returned on time (Wisconsin), discarding mail-in ballots for minor errors at alarmingly high rates (New York) or taking weeks to count ballots (New York and Pennsylvania).

…Election officials had help from a small but highly skilled group of academics like Persily. These are the law professors and political scientists who pay continual attention to the health of our elections, focused on sacred questions of voting rights and also prosaic ones about checking signatures. Private philanthropists also provided states with hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for poll workers and personal protective equipment and voter education, expenses the government traditionally covers. After the election, when I asked several academics how the mechanics went, they expressed relief and even sounded a note of celebration. “It could easily have been a total train wreck,” said Michael Morley, a law professor at Florida State University who served in the George W. Bush administration. “Instead, we can be proud about how well our election officials conducted this election under extremely adverse circumstances.”…

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