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From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, the United States is preparing to hold its first socially distant presidential election in history. Will it actually work? My colleague Richard Epstein on what we've learned from the very different experience of two states.
It's Tuesday, August 4th. So it is precisely three months to the day until Election Day. And from what you can tell, given the state of the pandemic, will voting on November 3rd at all resemble the way we have cast ballots in the past for a lot of us know?
You know, the idea that people have that they wake up the morning of Election Day and go to the middle school or a church or something nearby and wait in line for a few minutes and vote for a lot of us, that's going to be replaced with opening your mailbox and seeing a ballot that comes from your local board of elections and sitting down at the kitchen table and figuring out sort of who's running for what and looking for what they stand for and filling in the ovals as you see fit.
And then when you're done with that, you'll either put it back in the mailbox or you'll drop it off in a ballot collection box. And that will be how people vote and it will take place over a matter of weeks and not just crammed in on Election Day.
And just to be clear, what you're describing is mail and voting.
And I want to make sure I understand exactly what that is, because I think for a lot of people, there is a familiarity with absentee voting. And is that different? I mean, it's basically the same. A lot of us have received an absentee ballot if we're traveling for work or school and not at home. But mail and voting is on a mass scale of absentee voting that we're going to see for this election. Right. And so what has been our experience in the United States with Neyland voting up to this point?
It's very different, depending on where you live. There are five states that have been conducting their elections entirely by mail Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah and Colorado, where they send ballots to every registered voter and people return them either through the mail or in drop boxes. And so if you live in one of those places, this year's election will look pretty normal to you. You'll get your ballot. If you live in Washington State, you'll get a little booklet, which will be 80 to 100 pages with testimonials from everyone who's running for every office on the ballot.
Dog catcher to president of the United States. You have a chance to read and study and you'll fill it out at your leisure. And as long as you have a returned by whatever the local deadline is, your vote will count.
And by all accounts, how well does mail and voting work in those five states?
It works great by almost all accounts from anybody you talk to in those states, from both parties, it has increased turnout, particularly among demographics of people who are least likely to vote otherwise. I had a conversation last week with the Republican State Party chairman in Utah who said that Utahns have been voting by mail for over a decade and that they have effective safeguards and procedures in place to keep the voting on the up and up and that they don't expect any problems there with mail voting this fall because they haven't had any in the past.
So mail in voting is smooth in the states that have and of course, many other states have some level experience with absentee ballots, which would seem to suggest there's a pretty straightforward path to taking mail in voting nationwide for the entire country in twenty twenty.
You might think that, but it's been proven to not be that simple. And the best example of where things have gotten messy was in Georgia.
Georgia's presidential primary was supposed to be back in March and a couple of weeks before it was held, the secretary of state, a Republican named Brad Raffensperger, postponed it to May. And then a couple of weeks before the May primary, everything was postponed to June because they didn't quite know what to do with the pandemic. And after the second postponement was clear that they needed to do something to alleviate what they expected to be a crush of people voting their primary day.
And so they sent absentee ballot application forms to nearly seven million active registered voters in Georgia in an effort to get people to vote by mail and not come in to either early voting centers or Election Day voting sites.
So seven million people got applications for ballots, but not ballots themselves. That's right. So how many people ultimately sought a ballot with these applications?
In Georgia, about a million and a half people returned the ballot applications from the state to their county board of elections. And almost all of those people received the ballot.
But there were still tens of thousands of people who requested ballots and didn't receive them either. It didn't show up or it showed up after the election or it showed up a malfunctioning ballot or a bad return envelope or some way that it couldn't be returned properly. One example of that is Stacey Abrams, who was the Democratic Party nominee for governor in twenty eighteen.
I applied for my absentee ballot in May when there were some delay in receiving it, but when it finally arrived and received a ballot, I filled out the ballot, completed it and got ready to put it in the return envelope.
And the return envelope was sealed shut and she talked about using an iron to try to unseal it. And I attempted to steam it open because I've watched lots of mystery shows. It did not work well, but was unsuccessful.
And so she went and stood in line at an early voting site that Georgia had kept open for people to vote and was able to cast her ballot.
Luckily for me, I live in an area where the lines were not terribly long. But all I can think about are the people who did not receive their ballots, who were forced instead into ours.
Long lines. John Asaph, who is the Democratic nominee for Senate from Georgia.
My wife Alicia and I applied for our absentee ballots a month ago. We wrote the county. We sent letters to the county. We sounded the alarm publicly. We never got our ballots. And I'm on the ballot.
Waited five hours in line at a community swimming pool. We waited five hours to do so because he never received his absentee ballot.
And we are strong so we can do that. But think of the seniors.
And so after he waits in line for five hours and vote. He gets home and what's come in the mail after a month is his absentee ballot and then once Election Day came in Georgia.
Now to the primary day chaos. Hundreds of voters waiting in hours long lines.
You had limits of how many people could be inside those rooms at churches and schools because of the pandemic.
Voters told us they waited for as long as four hours to get inside to vote.
So you had images of people waiting five, six hours in line outside the buildings in the summer, Georgia heat, we saw two voters turn around and drive off because the line was so long and not indoors waiting to vote inside.
Once I got inside, I think the most frustrating part was that several of the machines were broken. Seems like maybe what happened to you for now, equipment was delivered late.
Some of it's not charged up the check and folks aren't really clear about what to do with.
Why do you think things went so badly in Georgia? Both the in and the in-person voting.
The bottom line really is that it's really hard to run either a mail election or an in-person election. And doing them both at the same time without really the resources to do either is a recipe for disaster. The elections administrator for Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and Georgia, the night of the primary, said during a Zoom press conference the absentee by mail process.
It was an election in and of itself that he was asked to run two elections at once.
We became an absentee by mail state. We still had to do our full complement of Election Day infrastructure and it stretched us and that he didn't have the resources of the capacity to do that.
And that was precisely what led to all of the problems that people experienced on their primary day.
We ran into a lot of a lot of challenges this time. So I think we are going to learn from this and move forward.
So Georgia seems almost like a case study of how not to hold an election in the middle of a pandemic.
Yeah, I mean, they kind of did all elements of what you would think of an election plus the mail and voting, but didn't really do any of them well and didn't really devote adequate resources to any part of it. And in the end, the result was about as bad an experience as you can get.
We'll be right back. The New York Times wants to invite you to join our panel by joining our panel, you'll provide regular feedback about the show and your general experiences with advertising and products from the Times while connecting with fellow listeners and readers. Join it. NY Times dot com daily listener. We did any state get a pandemic primary right over the past couple of weeks and months, were there any anti Georges?
I mean, the best example is probably Montana. The governor there, Steve Bullock, by executive order, gave the states fifty six counties the authority to mail ballots to all of their registered voters. And every registered voter in the state got a ballot in the mail.
And just to be clear, they got a ballot, not a ballot application. They got a ballot and not the application. So they skipped the step that Georgia and other states required. So voters there got the ballots in the mail. They filled them out. And as long as they were returned before the deadline, the ballots counted. And in the end, Montana had the highest voter turnout of any state in this year's presidential primary.
Huh. So what happened with in-person voting in Montana?
They kept some of it, but not in a form that would be really recognizable in a pre pandemic world. There were boards of elections, offices that were open for people who needed to change their registration or cast a ballot. But for the vast majority of voters in Montana, the election took place through the mail.
We are mindful that as smooth as this all seem to go in Montana, Montana is not necessarily representative of the whole country. Right. Has a pretty small population. That's right. There's about the same amount of people in the state of Montana as there are in Fulton County, in Georgia, in the state's biggest county. And so it is a much more challenging situation to run an election with with a lot more people than it is in a small state.
So how useful is Montana as a model?
I mean, what Montana shows is that if you give people ballots and don't make them jump through hoops to get to them, you're more likely to have more of them, return them and vote, meaning just mailing them the actual ballots and not making them apply and then get the ballots the way Georgia did.
That's right. So kind of in summary, Mayland voting is complicated, especially complicated in big states, but it can work when local authorities get ballots into people's hands.
In other words, this can work under ideal circumstances around the country.
It can work when there is a concerted effort by local elections officials to make it work.
If we went to mail in balloting, our election all over the world would look as a total joke. It would be a total joke.
What's going on in this country now is you have the president who is making a concerted effort to make it not work.
And in all the mailboxes and kids go in there, raid the mailboxes in the hand of the people that are signing the ballots down the end of the street, which is happening. They grab the ballots. You don't think that happens?
He regularly tweets and speaks about how mail voting is sort of fraud filled and a recipe for disaster and a reason Republicans won't win.
In some cases, they won't sell them to a Republican community, a conservative community. They don't happen to send the ballots to those communities. And there's no way of checking. No, you have to go and you have to vote.
And so it hasn't taken long for this idea to take hold among Republican voters and particularly base Republican voters, that there is something inherently wrong with voting by mail. And is there any.
Documented evidence of the mail voting is somehow more open to fraud. No, there's not. There have been a couple of isolated instances of what's called ballot harvesting. We saw in a congressional race in North Carolina a couple of years ago from the Republican side. But most of what you hear when people describe fraud in the vote by mail system are are either old wives tales or fantastic stories of an apartment building with 30 ballots in the mailbox, things that have been chain letters or Facebook memes that aren't necessarily grounded in in any real evidence.
So how do you explain why the president is claiming that this is a problematic mode of voting? What accounts for that?
I mean, there is a widespread belief among Republican voters and some Republican elected officials that allowing more people to vote will be advantageous to Democrats. And so take it in that context. It makes sense that he would resist some of the push toward mail in voting because it it does make it easier for a lot more people to vote.
Is there a version of this where the president seems to be discouraging mail in voting, but mail in voting becomes the predominant way that voting occurs in this fall's election? And therefore, wouldn't that mean that the president was telling his own voters don't trust the most important way of voting for my re-election, for his reelection? And there's a lot of concern about that happening already, you see in states that aren't entirely by vote, by mail, but where it's a predominant way of voting like Florida and Arizona that have large populations of older Republican voters, that Republican officials in those states have been trying to push a message that's expressly counter to what the president has been saying about voting by mail that we've seen in Utah, where the Republican state chairman told me that their system is not like what happens in other states.
And the president Trump, in describing fraud elsewhere, must be talking about somewhere else other than Utah.
So, in other words, these officials are trying to tell their voters trust the system, even if the president doesn't tell you to trust it, trust the system here, because the system where you live, it's functional and the president is talking about other places.
But that sort of nuance is lost on a lot of voters who hear what the president says and are generally disinclined to believe people who disagree with him, particularly within their own party, because of the way that the party and the president have functioned over the last four years.
So couldn't the president be actually hurting his own re-election chances by doing this? He's certainly hurting the enthusiasm for voting by mail among his Republican supporters.
Hmm. So read back to this woman three months to the day that we will have the presidential election. Where would you say the whole country is? Are most states looking like Georgia? You know, this is going to be a mess? Or are a lot of states looking like Montana in terms of their preparations for this election, which is to say they can pull it off? I think we have more states that at the moment are looking like Georgia than Montana.
Of the forty five states that have some sort of in-person voting, almost all of them are going to open polling places for people to show up at. But as we've seen, it's really hard to do two elections at once. And it's complex. It involves a lot of resources. And most of these states haven't done a big general election where. Most of their voters cast ballots in the mail, it's going to be new for the voters, it's going to be new for the elections administrators and it's going to be new for the people that count the ballots on election night.
And what are the likely consequences of so many states? Trying this for the first time, I mean, the first obvious consequence is on November 3rd in the evening, when we're used to turning on television and the Internet and seeing the results of the elections come in, we may not have them. And what President Trump and Joe Biden do about declaring victory or not, Trump has said the election should be called on election night no matter what. But we know that there will be millions and millions of ballots that aren't counted on election night, whether it's because states have voting rules that say your ballot counts as long as it's postmarked by Election Day or because it takes some of these states longer to count absentee ballots that came in the mail than would have taken them to count about.
That was marked and delivered into a machine at a polling place. And all of that is going to have a real significant impact on what we know about the presidential contest, the Senate races and races all down the ballot.
And of course, that's just when we know the results. If this election is as messy and complicated as everything you're saying suggests, it might be. I wonder if that raises a much bigger question, which is how much do you think the country will trust the outcome of the elections on November 3rd if voting ends up feeling kind of haphazard?
I mean, a lot of that will depend on people's experiences heading into the election, whether a lot of people have problems voting by mail or don't even try to vote by mail or have to wait in line for hours at either early voting centers or on Election Day. Know, a lot of the feelings about this was going to be dictated, frankly, by what the president says and does. If the president wakes up on the morning of November 4th and says, I don't care that there are more votes left to be counted, I won.
Then you can sort of imagine how that's going to play out or if there's a state like Take Arizona, where it appears that President Trump has won on election night, but four days later, they've received more votes and that flips to Joe Biden. And that's the deciding state. There's innumerable chaos that could happen from that. And so it doesn't take much to make this system look like it's chaotic, even though in a lot of times it's either sort of how the system is designed to work because the mail in voting just does take longer.
Even though it's a more efficient way of getting more people to vote, it can take longer to tabulate the results from that.
So you're basically telling us to be patient and Americans are not patient. They're not. No. I mean, if if you want to not stress out about the results of the election, buy a plane ticket to someplace without Internet access or sell signal on November 2nd, week and a half later or three weeks or four weeks ago to go to the Galapagos Islands or somewhere and come back in a couple of weeks.
And by then you might you'll probably know who won.
Well, we thank you very much. Thank you, Michael.
On Monday, the Democratic governor of Nevada, Steve Similac, signed a law that would require sending ballots to every registered voter in the state, saying that it would ensure, quote, the safest, most accessible election possible under these unprecedented circumstances. In response, President Trump threatened legal action to try to block the measure.
There's never been a push like this for mail in ballots.
And if you look at it during a news conference at the White House, Trump was asked whether he would consider restricting mail in voting nationwide through an executive order.
Universal mail in ballots is going to be a great embarrassment to our country. I have the right to do it. We haven't gotten there yet, but we'll see what happens. We will be suing in Nevada.
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A new court filing indicates that the investigation, which was thought to focus on hush money payments made to women during the 2016 campaign, may actually be examining a range of possible criminal activity, including potential bank and insurance fraud. The Supreme Court sided with Vance in a major ruling last month, saying that the president lacked the legal basis to block the district attorney from seeking years of his tax records as part of the investigation.
And The Times reports that nearly 3000 small businesses in New York City have permanently closed because of the pandemic more than in any U.S. city.
A new report estimates that one third of the city's small businesses, or about 75000 of them, may never reopen because of lockdowns and lost revenue.
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