Stanford and MIT Researchers partner to ensure a healthy election in 2020

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This article is the first in a series on how Stanford faculty, students and community members are preparing for and taking part in the 2020 election.

With only three months to go until Election Day, experts are concerned about the health and integrity of the nation’s elections, particularly as they are set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, nationwide protests and civil unrest. 

Researchers at Stanford have partnered with colleagues at MIT to establish the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, a multilateral coalition that was formed “to ensure that the upcoming 2020 election can proceed with integrity, safety, and equal access” according to their website, healthyelections.org

The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project aims to achieve this goal by collaborating with and coordinating a network of academics, civic organizations and election administrators to research and promote best practices leading up to Election Day. 

The project is led by Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily, who is also the former Senior Research Director of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, and MIT political science professor Charles Stewart III, Stanford Ph.D. ’85, who also directs the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. They lead a team of faculty members and research scientists, as well as undergraduate and graduate students from both Stanford and MIT.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for students to get involved in the biggest challenge to American democracy that we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” Persily said in an interview with The Daily. “We are dealing with unprecedented stresses on the U.S. electoral system, and we here at Stanford should be leaders in trying to address them.”

“This is also a unique opportunity for students to make a difference and to work with faculty to understand the logistical challenges that election officials are facing in the 2020 election,” he added. 

Persily launched the project with Stewart at MIT in April when the election-related effects of COVID-19 were first becoming apparent. The goal was to “start an organization that would be dedicated to solving the logistical problems that the pandemic posed for local election officials.” 

The group is working to provide research and support for many states in their efforts to update election procedures, which includes expanding absentee balloting and developing robust vote-by-mail infrastructure. Stewart hopes that the project will serve to “bring together under one big umbrella a series of partners who are boots-on-the-ground, working one-on-one with election administrators as they’re making this difficult transition to more mail-in balloting and secure in-person voting.”

Among the many experts working alongside Persily and Stewart is political science professor and Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) senior fellow Larry Diamond. As the former director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), Diamond is particularly concerned with warning signs that indicate the risk of an unhealthy election.

That risk has been amplified now, more than at any time in decades, because of a number of factors, Diamond said, including political polarization and the declining trust in public officials and public administration, the transition of many voting systems to untested new machines and new technologies, the underfunding of the U.S. Postal Service, and the pandemic, which will put much more pressure on the state, county and local electoral administrations to count, handle and secure an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots. 

How do we design in-person voting during a pandemic? According to Stewart that is the “topic du jour” among election officials. Given the current health crisis, experts are looking for ways to decrease density at polling stations. In many jurisdictions, schools are not reopening this fall for in-person instruction, so Persily recommends that these facilities be utilized as additional polling stations, thereby promoting social distancing. Experts also suggest using empty sports arenas and community centers as viable alternatives to traditional polling centers, given the ample parking and space for crowd control. 

“We know that what needs to be done involves spacing within polling stations, placing voting booths far apart from one another, putting up lots of plexiglass shields” and other modifications that the public is already encountering at grocery stores and restaurants, which are being constructed and retrofitted at polling stations to address necessary crowd control.

Persily, Stewart and Diamond all emphasized the need for creativity in adopting and adapting new venues for early voting in order to support capacity restrictions within jurisdictions. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, another critical concern related to in-person voting is the diminished supply of poll workers expected to be available on Election Day. The vast majority of poll workers in the U.S. are over 60 years old, which is the age group that has the highest vulnerability to coronavirus-related deaths or severe, lasting illnesses. As a result, the traditional supply of poll workers available to work at the polls on Election Day has shriveled in many jurisdictions. 

Persily, Diamond and Stewart think that college students may offer a solution to this problem. They recommend a massive national effort to recruit college students and young people in general, who are less likely to become severely ill should they contract the virus, to volunteer as poll workers this year. Diamond acknowledged that, due to the pandemic, many Stanford students are currently (and may remain) dispersed around the country this fall, and expressed his hope “that they’ll be inspired to contact their county registrar and volunteer to work at the polls on Election Day.”

“I can’t emphasize enough what a tremendous service this would be to American democracy,” Diamond said.

In addition to the economic, social and political upheaval intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are concerned about foreign interference in the 2020 election. According to David Becker, the Executive Director and Founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a partner organization of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, the work of the Healthy Elections team is “incredibly important, and it gets at the crux of the challenges and destabilization we face in this highly partisan environment.” 

Becker notes that “we’re seeing unprecedented efforts to convince American voters that their votes don’t matter and they won’t count” both from within the U.S. and by foreign adversaries. This is concerning “because what adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran want is for citizens of a democracy to lose confidence in their democracy and their elections.”

In service to our democracy, leaders of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project recommend that all eligible voters make a plan to vote, decide proactively and early whether to vote in-person or by mail, and confirm their eligibility on their state’s Secretary of State website. California voters can obtain additional voting information online. Information on volunteering as a poll worker on Election Day can be found on the US Election Assistance Commission site

Contact Jack Murawczyk at dmurawczyk23 ‘at’ csus.org

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Jack Murawczyk is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Program.