Thinking Outside of the Ballot Box

If there is one thing that we can agree on in this divided country it is that 2020 has sucked. If the cascading crises were not bad enough, we have also lost almost all of the distractions and diversions we normally rely on to escape and reduce stress: attending sporting events, live concerts, and musical theater; new movies, people watching at Starbucks, free breakfasts at the Homewood Suites. Fortunately, for those of us who count large-scale, high-stakes data collection activities among their hobbies (and if you are reading my blog, that probably includes you) 2020 has been a gift that keeps on giving.

The year started with the 2020 Census and the drama over how it could be conducted accurately, efficiently, and fairly; and that was before the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the process. In the spring, we had the three-month extension of the tax deadline, the distribution of stimulus checks, and state unemployment agencies trying to process the deluge of applications. On the lighter side, the College Board’s attempt at administering AP tests remotely got us thinking about what state assessment in spring 2021 might look like if the pandemic and school disruptions persisted.  Then we have the Big 2, once-in-a-lifetime (I hope) data collection challenges:

  • COVID-19 testing and contact tracing across 50 states and 325 million people; and
  • The 2020 Presidential Election.

Ah, the 2020 election. Sure, we know that this is the “most important election of our lifetime”; and “the future of democracy,”  “the soul of the nation,” and “the very existence of the planet” depend on its outcome.  But that’s not what has me excited. No, it’s all of the handwringing, angst, rancor, distrust, and fury over the mechanics of the election that keeps me up at night (in a good way).  And to think, so much of it is based on false premises and misinformation.  I feel like George Costanza trying to cross the busy street with the Frogger machine – everything I did in K-12 state assessment for the past 30 years has prepared me for this moment!

How Do We Hold an Election in A Pandemic?

We all know the problem, so let’s jump right into the “solutions” that are on the table and the one that isn’t. 

As a starting point, can we dismiss the luddites and well-intentioned liberals (bless their hearts) who are on social media trying to shame companies into making “Election Day” a paid holiday.   Setting aside serious discussion about whether that would actually lead to increased access, equity, and more people voting, we have already moved so far beyond the concept of elections being held on a single day.  Continue to seek ways to increase access, sure.  Subsidize people to vote, I’m skeptical, but we can discuss it.  Create a national Election Day holiday, that ship has sailed.

Now let’s move on to mail-in ballots.  Where to begin?  Red herrings are always a good place to start.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the mainstream media, Congress, and yes, even Taylor Swift, have let themselves (and through them us) be pulled into what is basically nothing more than a labor dispute.  Hint:  Any time virtually all of the stories about a topic begin with quotes from union leaders and mention lost overtime, it’s a labor dispute.  Kudos to the postal union for using the election as a bargaining chip. Stories of delayed delivery of prescription medications and dead chicks (who knew you could send live animals through the mail) are effective in any year, but the most important election in the history of the world – here’s $50 billion, no questions asked.  (And of course, the president helping their cause by saying something galactically stupid was just icing on the cake.)

Now to those who think I am being just a little bit too flippant or cavalier about the issue, consider this. I know things might work differently in the big city, but here in Maine and in many places around the country, most mail-in and absentee ballots this year never have to leave town and get anywhere near a postal distribution center and missing sorting machines.  Our ballots are distributed by the town office (the people who run the election) and are returned to the town office through our local post office, dropping them off in person any time the town office is open, or using a contactless drop box 24/7.  Like annual polls about attitudes toward public schools and teachers, I might have doubts about the USPS in general, but my local post office and postal workers are just fine, thank you.

As any of us involved in large-scale data collection know, however, there will be problems with a hastily implemented or expanded system of mail-in voting.  Even if there is no election fraud (and I am bemused that the party that has spent four years tearing out their hair and rending their garments over election interference has no concerns about universal mail-in ballots), my bona fides in working with voter data bases allow me to declare with confidence that I would much rather be working with October school enrollment files.

There will be delays in counting votes, of course; and delays breed speculation, conspiracy theories, and lawsuits.  Can delays be avoided? Some states have laws/policies in place that absentee or mail-in ballots cannot be counted until the polls close on election day. One reason for those policies is to ensure that people don’t vote in person and by mail. However, they are also designed to give people the option to withdraw their absentee ballot and vote in person, if for example, someone like James Comey makes an announcement that makes them want to change their vote. 

So, what’s the solution?

Election? What Election?

 Most of us realize and accept that there is no national general election.  You know, the one the Democrats have won 4 of the last 5 (or 6 of the last 7) elections.  And I am more convinced than ever that not making the presidential election a direct vote was the best thing the founders did, but that’s a topic for a different day.

We assume, however, that there must be state general elections – “One person, one vote,” “every vote counts,” and all.  We have been told that Congress determines the date of the general election.  Lester Holt has me worried about Trump canceling the election. But, Hold On, Mr. President!, as Sam Donaldson might say (old person political reference).

A close read of my trusty, dog-eared, pocket U.S. Constitution and an exhaustive Google search suggest that maybe there is no law requiring state general elections for president.  Yes, Congress determines the date by which states have to identify their presidential electors, but as far as I can tell, the method for doing that is still up to each state.  True, most states currently have laws awarding their electors based on the results of a general statewide election; but those are just state laws. They can be changed easily; perhaps even more easily than usual under the current state of emergency.  A state could decide to allocate its electors via a Twitter poll or by having people text ‘Red’ or ‘Blue’ to 2020270. 

Most states could probably even get away with having no “election” at all and just having the Democratic and Republican parties agree to stipulate a winner in certain states to avoid having to worry about people voting there. Why not?  According to most analyses I have seen, like the map below, there are at most 11 states where the outcome of the presidential election is uncertain.  We could even let each party designate two additional states just to be safe.  That would eliminate worries about voting in a pandemic or mail-in voting in 35 of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia.


An Academic Exercise

But Charlie, sure this looks good in a blog post, but no state and its people would ever give up their election.  Every vote counts!  Well, I’m sure you are aware of the NPVIC.  No?  The NPVIC is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact; “an agreement among a group of U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all of their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote.” As of July 2020, 15 state plus the District of Columbia have already enacted laws to join the compact and decisions are pending in five other states.  Clearly, state elections are not sacrosanct.

OK, it might actually work for the presidential election, but it’s still just an academic exercise. We still have to elect senators in 35 states and 435 representatives from every state.  (Aside: It’s funny how we use the term “academic exercise” to refer to things that are purely speculative and lack any practical application – and academics seem to be OK with that. ) 

Well, most pundits and pollsters (I think they are different from academics, but there might be some overlap) feel that no more than 12 senate and 90 house races are competitive.  So, we can still put safety first in a large portion of the country.

And think about it, no more political ads for most of us for the rest of 2020. Not me, here in Maine, of course, but I am doing this for the rest of you. I don’t know about you, but after eight solid months of nonstop ads for the Maine senate race I am fed up with both candidates and plan to write-in a vote for the woman who narrates many of the Susan Collins ads.  She seems trustworthy and has a nice sense of humor. I hope she’s actually from Maine.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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