Voters wait in long lines to cast their ballots during early voting at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. The wait to vote was over 4 hours.
( Michael Conroy
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzania Vega. Welcome back to The Takeaway. The 2020 presidential election was a singular experience for many Americans marked by a worsening global pandemic, long lines at the polls, and a historic amount of mail-in ballots, but with the counting almost through and the president-elect named, we're going to step back today and look at how it all actually played out and what we might be able to learn for future elections. For that, I spoke to Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program, and I started by asking her first about the flood of mail-in ballots this year.
Myrna Perez: I think we need to focus on how much better we had done than when we started. I actually think that it is remarkable how much progress we made, more voters than ever had the opportunity to vote by mail, more states than ever gave voters the opportunity to correct technical defects, and more states than ever allowed voters additional extra time for their ballots to return. Having said that, we are not a country that is prepared for all universal vote by mail.
We will continue to need our polling places and it is really, really important that we take this time to figure out what we learned from the last election experience. To me, that means we don't want to be in a position where we are playing catch up, where we are figuring out where our systems aren't working and we're trying to fix them in response to a problem.
We, in fact, should go into every election season knowing that we are prepared to handle whatever contingencies are needed because this year, it was a once in a century pandemic, but in other years, it may be foreign cybercriminals crippling our infrastructure or really bad weather.
Tanzina: One of the things that surprised me being here in New York, where this was one of the first times we've ever had expanded early voting or early voting in general, were the lines. Why do we still have long lines even though people had more time to vote?
Myrna: I'm thrilled that you ask that question, because I believe that long lines are a per se problem. They are evidence that something did not go as well as it could have been. It's hard to know exactly what the problem was, in some instances, and maybe that we didn't have enough poll workers that were trained to be able to handle the kind of quirky things that voters are putting in front of them. It may be that we didn't have good line management. It may be that we didn't have enough polling places because we did a poor job predicting how many people would show up.
I know that you'll have a lot of people say that it was unexpected enthusiasm in turnout. That is true, but the big question I would ask is why was it unexpected? Why weren't they preparing for a scenario in which we had lots and lots of voters showing up? My hope is that we take a look at this election and figure out what could have been better and make it a point of trying to make those things better because I do believe and I think Americans believe that our elections are too important to depend upon voters taking [00:03:13] heroic links in order to be able to cast a ballot.
This should be something that is easy and accessible and no big deal. It's that way in other countries. Other countries manage to be able to have people voting without a lot of handwringing and drama. In part, it happens so challenging in this country because we chronically underfund and underresource our elections.
Tanzina: There's been a lot made of who has the last word on election processes. We know now, at least so far, the Supreme Court has put that emphasis back on the states, the states to be able to manage their processes, but to your point about why this is so difficult in the United States, I just keep wondering, why don't we just have one system to vote, where the ballots look the same everywhere, where the machinery is the same everywhere, where the deadlines are the same everywhere.
I think this election, in particular, was so utterly confusing for so many people who are just trying to find their ballots, trying to figure out where to cast them, how to cast them, where not to cast them, where to wait in line. This system just doesn't seem like it's working at all and I think international observers would agree with that.
Myrna: Our elections are run by our states, which means we don't just have one system, we have 50 systems and in some ways, that's a lot of risk diversification because that means that if something goes wrong in one state, it doesn't become a national problem, it can be fixed in a localized way. It also means that different states can fine-tune what they need for their communities and states are allowed to set different laws under certain circumstances.
What I do think we need and what I think that there are opportunities to try and push for is minimum federal standards in federal elections. So that states and localities have the option of doing better than a floor, but there is a floor that voters can experience. I also think that the media needs to think about how it is that they report election issues because I think it's very clear that in trying to educate voters about things that can go wrong, they nationalize one-offs.
We're not doing a good enough job of it landing, that people really only need to worry about the problems in their state when it comes to their ability to vote. I do think we did a disservice to some voters by nationalizing one-offs.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about the how to voting. Some of us may recall the Shelby v Holder decision by the Supreme Court a few years back that essentially limited a lot of the power of the Voting Rights Act. Here we are in 2020, there's been lots of talk about voter disenfranchisement and at the same time, there have been so many efforts made to register voters to the polls. How do you see the future of our voting process under this current Supreme Court which many folks would say are really hostile to voting rights?
Myrna: I'm so glad you ask that. I think, first of all, it is very obvious that we need a new Voting Rights Act. We need a robust Voting Rights Act, we need a Voting Rights Act that responds to the court critique in Shelby County versus Holder and we need to build a case for that in the court of public opinion. There were tons and tons of instances in which it was reported that voters were having issues with intimidation or people not understanding the rules.
That is something we can fix and something we should fix, but I don't think we should depend upon the courts to be the one to fix it. It's one of three branches of government. We need to make sure that the people and that the legislature understand that voters care about voting and that voters believe in the promise that this country made via the 15th Amendment that when you step into the ballot box, you will be free from racial discrimination in voting.
If we could have voters make it very clear to politicians and candidates that they will not tolerate vote suppression, I think we wouldn't be seeing politicians try it.
Tanzina: The Electoral College has been something that's been in the conversation at so many levels at the last couple of presidential elections. The big question here is, should it be done with? Is the Electoral College a relic of the past that really doesn't reflect the will of the American people?
Myrna: The Brennan Center certainly believes that the Electoral College should be reformed and that the popular vote should elect the president. People are looking at things like different state compacts to try and bring that about. I think ultimately, voters need to have trust in a system that is accurate and representative. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Electoral College impedes that trust and impedes that confidence.
At a time where Americans are increasingly expecting our institutions of power to be inclusive and representative, it's one of a number of issues that I think is going to be the subject of a lot of serious conversations. We are in a position where we need to be rethinking our structures and our systems and the Electoral College is no exception.
Tanzina: Myrna Perez is the director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program. Myrna, thanks so much for being with us.
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