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Professor Explores Ways To Have A Fair Election In November

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Uncertainty is one of the most common words many of us have been using over the past few months since the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality. And the term clearly applies to November's election. How challenging will it be to cast a ballot in person? Will states that haven't commonly used mail-in ballots make the adjustment adeptly? Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine and author of "Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy," put together an ad hoc committee of experts for recommendations on how to have a fair election in November, and he's with me to talk about those suggestions. Rick, to what extent is the country worried about the fairness of what's to come in November, especially in the context of the pandemic?

RICK HASEN: I can tell you that I'm worried. In early February, I published a book called "Election Meltdown." Things are even more dire in terms of the public's confidence because we're having changes to election rules in light of the pandemic and lots of suspicions about some of those changes, lots of litigation about some of those changes. Polling before the pandemic showing 40% or more of the public not confident that their votes are going to be fairly and accurately counted or that we're going have a fair election. That number could well be increasing in light of the kinds of changes to our voting rules and the kinds of disruptions that we're seeing right now.

GOLDSTEIN: To what extent would or could relaxing laws related to mail-in ballots solve some problems, but also create new ones with that dreaded phrase, "unintended consequences?"

HASEN: Well, I think the reality is that if the pandemic in the fall looks anything like it does now, there's going to be a huge surge in requests for absentee ballots. Some states like Arizona and California allow anyone who wishes to vote by mail. Those states already have a fair amount of vote-by-mail, and they should be able to ramp up to all vote-by-mail or mostly vote-by-mail elections. There are other states that are much less well-prepared states where the number of people voting by absentee is usually 3 or 6% instead of 60 or 70%. There's going to be an increased request across the country for these absentee ballots as people are afraid to go to polling places and as poll workers often pulled from the ranks of older voters, are afraid to work at polling places. So there's going to be more voting by mail. The question is how well we're going to do it. And one of the big concerns is that there's not going to be adequate funding. There's gonna be demand for these ballots — states are gonna have to print them. But the federal government so far is only coming up with a small percentage of the money that's going to be needed to do this. That means that budgets are going to be tight, mistakes might be made. And so I think that not only is there concern about the integrity of the use of vote-by-mail, in part because of some comments made by the president raising unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. There are also real questions about how accurate the vote count can be and how much access voters are going to have in a system where there may not be adequate resources to properly fund the effort to increase vote-by-mail.

GOLDSTEIN: Let's go specifically to the "Fair Elections During a Crisis" report. I had a few questions for you about it. There are 14 recommendations your ad hoc committee came up with for changes and the categories are legal, media, politics and tech. Are they equally important?

HASEN: I got together a group across ideological, group of scholars and thinkers, conservatives and liberals, experts in those four areas — law, politics, tech and media — and asked, you know, what can we do in each of these areas to try to lower the risk of meltdown? If I had to pick one personally, we didn't prioritize them for the committee, but to pick one personally, I would say now in light of the pandemic that the changes we recommend as to absentee balloting are the most important. Part of that is about election administrators being prepared for the flood of absentee ballots and get those ballots ready for processing on election day and to count them in a fair and relatively quick manner, but also for the media. I think the media here is crucial because if you take a state like Arizona or you take a state like Michigan, if it's a close election and there are a flood of absentee ballots, it may take days before the election results are going to be known. And during that time, it's possible that one candidate is ahead and claims victory, and then as more votes are counted, the votes shift and another candidate is declared the winner. That kind of delay, especially in the era of misinformation, especially with someone like President Trump, who has made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud throughout his time in the public eye. It's just a recipe for the losers of the election to believe that something nefarious is going on in how elections are conducted and how the votes are counted.

GOLDSTEIN: How much responsibly rests with individual voters? And maybe that's, maybe there's a sliding scale there, perhaps.

HASEN: So I think all of us have a responsibility to make sure that we're not spreading misinformation. Especially if you see something really juicy involving the election that benefits your side and seems too good to be true. You might want to think, "Before I spread this, let me make sure it's actually accurate and fair and that I'm getting my news from legitimate sources." I think, I think that's a big responsibility that voters have. Let me mention one other. Elections are conducted on the county — your sub-county level. And one benefit of that is that it means that the average voter can get involved and make sure that local election officials are doing what they can to make sure that the vote is going to be conducted in a safe and fair way and that the vote counting process and processing of absentee ballots is done in a fair and transparent way. These are the kinds of things that you can ask your election officials. You can reach out and find out whether or not they are following procedures which will ensure there's a right to vote. What's their plan if there is an emergency? What if the power goes out? What if there's a terrorist attack? What if there's a natural disaster? What is the Plan B? And I think all of us can ask our local election officials to answer those kinds of questions, and now is the time to be asking those questions. Not in November when things potentially could be too late to change.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you expect the 2020 election to offer challenges that we haven't seen before?

HASEN: I do think it's a scary election and it's become scarier because of the virus, which has caused both questions about how to apply existing laws like laws on ballot access. Challenges to dealing with new procedures: When the virus hit, Arizona decided to go ahead with its election. Ohio decided to postpone it. Both were problematic in their own ways. And so it's really hard when you already have a very volatile system, a hyper-polarized system full of misinformation, where there's a lot of distrust. Add into it a once-in-100 year pandemic, and it's a recipe for uncertainty. And so I think we need to do whatever we can to assure that the fairness and integrity of the election is protected, that voters who are eligible to vote have access to the ballot, and that the losers of the election will not have a good reason to be concerned that the results are somehow inaccurate or skewed.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Rick Hasen. He is a professor at UC Irvine, also author of "Election Meltdown." We've been talking about the new report, " Fair Elections During a Crisis." Rick, thank you for the time and be well.

HASEN: Thank you. And I want to say that anyone who'd like to read the report and simply Google the words "fair elections during a crisis" and they'll be able to find that report.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.