From the Front Lines of the Fight for Fair Elections

pop-up voting center, Santa Clarita, CA
Voters cast their ballot at a pop-up voting center at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, CA, on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Photo credit: © David Crane/Orange County Register via ZUMA Wire
Reading Time: 19 minutesProtecting Out Vote 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected the 2020 election, as demonstrated by April’s chaotic Wisconsin primary, delayed primary elections in many states, and a range of efforts to expand mail-in balloting. As this year’s general election approaches, Democrats have pushed to expand absentee balloting, alarming President Donald Trump, who fears such reforms could harm Republican prospects.   

Gabriella Novello, WhoWhatWhy’s election integrity reporter, joined Peter B. Collins to discuss her recent reporting on election issues, including the different rules for voting-by-mail in various states, the fiction of widespread voter fraud, and the reality of voter suppression and election fraud by insiders, like the 2018 “harvesting” of absentee ballots by Republican operatives in North Carolina’s 10th congressional district.

She also warns that expanded mail-in voting will change media coverage on election night, as exit polls won’t be possible in states with partial or total absentee participation, and tabulation will be affected by varying deadlines for submission and the process of validation of signatures.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Peter B. Collins: Welcome to another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins.

Today, we are joined by WhoWhatWhy reporter Gabriella Novello, and she runs the election integrity beat here at WhoWhatWhy.org. And this is an issue I feel passionately about. I have been following the ups and downs of electronic voting, the contested presidential elections, and many other issues related to voting for over 20 years now. Gabriella, thanks for being with us today.

Gabriella Novello: Thanks for having me.
Peter B. Collins: And what drew you to the issues of election process and the ability of Americans to trust the democratic process that we go through?
Gabriella Novello: Yeah. In 2018, I was still in college realizing I’m about to graduate soon. What do I want to do? How do I want to get involved? And I always wanted to be in some form of public service. That is honestly how I’ve always viewed journalism, it’s a form of public service. I had seen what was going on in my hometown district, and I wanted to get involved in campaigning at first on the communication side. And then I realized it was so hard to get voters excited about an election. Voters often didn’t know that there were so many obstacles to voting itself. I realized what is the best way that I can help educate and prepare the public when it comes to elections.
Gabriella Novello: And I had come across this job with WhoWhatWhy and I was just like, wow, it was perfect, and it was kind of just the right time for me. And then as I started this job, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know myself. There was a learning curve, but I think that there’s so much complexity around the voter registration process, finding out where a polling place is, and trying to submit, if you have to, an absentee ballot. I think right now, especially with so many uncertainties between the coronavirus right now and the 2020 election, I think it’s never been a more important time for the news media to really take on a public education role and try to arm the voters with as much information as possible.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and it’s fair to say that both parties scheme to get whatever advantage they can. Gerrymandering is a major issue in many states. And while Republicans now dominate that game, Democrats used it to their advantage when they were in control of state legislatures and had a democratic governor. It does have a kind of pendulum effect, and we’re seeing that at this time, my view is that Republicans are using their advantage to try to get their voters to the polls and reduce the participation of Democrats through various suppression schemes.
Gabriella Novello: You raise a good point. It’s unfair to say that, for example, gerrymandering is a one party scheme, that either only Democrats or Republicans use this, but we are seeing right now, which is incredible in my opinion, that we’re seeing nationwide elected leaders, so we’re seeing the President of the United States say during this coronavirus taskforce briefings that absentee voting is an opportunity for fraud. He said on a news channel recently that you’d never get another Republican elected if you had mail voting. It’s kind of interesting to see how clear the pushback is and how clear they are being that they don’t appear to want all of this expanded access to at least mail-in balloting because they think it’s bad for Republicans.
Gabriella Novello: But when you look at how many people actually use absentee voting, it’s actually not partisanly used. If you look at states like Utah where that state is very known for turning out Republican elected officials, roughly 8 in 10 Republican voters enjoy having the option of mail-in balloting. They don’t see it as a partisan issue. I think it partially comes down to also the exposure one has to these types of options. The less you see voters voting by mail, the more likely you are to be susceptible possibly to these kinds of messaging.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and as we’re speaking here on the 18th of May, The New York Times has a story that the Republicans have revealed a plan to spend as much as $20 million and recruit 50,000 poll watchers to fight what they consider to be voter fraud. Studies show that voter fraud is an infinitesimal issue, that very few people try to vote twice or try to vote when they’re not permitted to, whether it’s a citizenship issue or some other requirement. And what’s ironic here is that with the move in many states, not all, to expand access to mail-in voting, the Republicans are planning to place people at the polls to try to detect some sort of voter fraud when there aren’t going to be as many people going to the polls this November.
Gabriella Novello: Right. We’re seeing a majority of voters in poll after poll say that they are very likely to mail a ballot in. From the far fewer number of people that will be voting in person, I mean, we’ll also have far fewer journalists on the ground covering elections, but that’s a whole other issue. It should be interesting what these poll workers or poll watchers will find, if anything, but we had put out a story recently that looked at how often voter fraud happens. And as you said, it’s so far few. Back in 2017-2018 when President Trump was first elected, one of the first things he did was he created the voter fraud task force where former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach had led it.
Gabriella Novello: And they clung to a report that claimed over a thousand cases of voter fraud. That report has been refuted by a couple of other groups, but the number of… Almost 250 million mail-in ballots have been cast since the 2000 presidential election and less than 500 of those have been proven cases of voter fraud. Sometimes we still end up debating the numbers. I mean, that task force was ultimately disbanded and they said that there was no evidence of voter fraud.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and Kris Kobach is notorious for his various efforts, including the interstate crosscheck list, which was used to bump people off the voting rolls in various states, claiming that they would attempt to vote twice. And Greg Palast, the investigative reporter who focuses on election issues, showed that the lists were intentionally not detailed, so that a Peter Collins in California could be matched up with a Peter Collins in neighboring Nevada. And one of us would show up at the polls and surprise, you’re not on the list. This was an effort that… It was just one of the many tools in the Kobach toolbox.
Gabriella Novello: Sure. I mean, in 2013, Kobach was part of the effort to push a state law in Kansas requiring proof of citizenship before someone could register to vote. But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, they overruled that law and delivered, I guess you could say, like the final blow to his effort to get citizenship on a voter registration application. I mean, he cited concerns of voter fraud, but I think that’s why it’s so important. Again, I go back to why it’s so important for the media to take on… the news media to take on a voter education role and make sure that they are triple checking their numbers and speaking to the right people to make sure they understand what they’re reporting, so the voters and their readers understand what the actual numbers are and what the actual truth is when it comes to how serious of an issue is voter fraud.
Gabriella Novello: Is vote by mail really something that only benefits one party over the other? When you look at the numbers, you see that absentee voting benefits people of all political ideology and voter fraud is really not something that happens.
Peter B. Collins: Well, one of the other things is when you do careful investigation about the claims that Republicans have been making in recent years, Kobach found one issue of election fraud in Kansas. And it was a student, a young woman, who had voted twice, once in Colorado, she did a mail-in ballot, and then apparently she forgot about it and she went to the polls when she was back in Kansas on election day. And I believe she was a Trump voter. Then we have the case of crosscheck where Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump’s one… At least one of the architects of his victory back in 2016. He was found to be registered in the District of Columbia and in Florida.
Peter B. Collins: And then we have the issues related to absentee ballots where the most recent proven case was in North Carolina District 10, where there’s a pretty elaborate ballot harvesting scheme where they would deliver the absentee ballots to people. And if they suspected that the votes were for Democrats, those just didn’t make it when they were turned in, and that caused the rerun of a congressional election after it was fully investigated. What often is claimed to be an effort at voter fraud often turns out to be a form of election fraud.
Gabriella Novello: Yeah, no, I definitely agree with that.
Peter B. Collins: Gabriella, we have a number of primaries that are coming up that were delayed because of the issues of the virus and various restrictions on people’s movements, and we saw the low point in Wisconsin where there was all of this back and forth, and even the U.S. Supreme Court got involved. The State Supreme court ordered the election to proceed after the governor, who’s a Democrat, tried to delay it or even just extend the deadline for mail-in ballots. As we see coming up on June 2nd, Delaware, District of Columbia, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Dakota, that’s almost a new Super Tuesday.
Peter B. Collins: What is your sense of whether these elections will be mostly conducted by mail and if people will actually show up at the polls?
Gabriella Novello: Well, it’s been interesting for sure to see how states are approaching the 2020 election. I mean, especially due to the fact that coronavirus has effectively disrupted every aspect of daily life. And as you said, we’re basically having another Super Tuesday because of all of the delayed primaries. But we may not know the actual results at the end of election day because so many states choosing to also have mail-in voting for their primary elections. I mean, for example, this week, Oregon is having its election. And we know that Oregon conducts all mail elections, so voters are supposed to return their ballot by the end of election day on the 19th, so Tuesday, but we’re not going to necessarily have the results in on May 19th.
Gabriella Novello: We might not have them for a few days. If that’s going to be happening with a dozen states having an election, we’re not going to have a dozen results for a couple of days. But some of the factors that have to be considered is… In New York, for example, we saw the primary canceled. Put back on. People are going to be allowed to vote by mail. But in New York, you need a valid excuse, so how many people are going to end up actually submitting an absentee ballot? How many people are now going to be voting in person? How many people are not going to vote at all because of either the confusion or fear about voting in person?
Gabriella Novello: There’s a couple of lawsuits sprouting up throughout the country to try to quicken up the process of lifting restrictions on who can actually request an absentee ballot. Some of the requirements include, as I mentioned, needing a valid excuse, but there’s also if you submit an absentee ballot, you need to have a notarized witness signature on the envelope to confirm your identity before you return your ballot. Things like that are being challenged in federal court to try to lift those restrictions in time for voters to actually get a valid and submit it, have it counted. But got my eye on a few states, I mentioned Oregon, New York. Maryland is going to be having its election soon, and they’ve seen quite a rise in coronavirus cases.
Gabriella Novello: We’ll see. I mean, with all the factors in how you can even obtain all the requirements and what you need to obtain an absentee ballot, it’ll be interesting. Unfortunately, there’s just so many uncertainties that we really won’t know until we know.
Peter B. Collins: Now, the New York case is interesting because there’s two-person state elections commission. They’re both Democrats. They decided, “We don’t need to have a Democratic presidential primary because Biden’s got it. That’s, that’s very clear,” they think. And they said that it was for public safety that they weren’t going to draw people to the polls for the presidential primary. But in every district or precinct where there is a contested election, say a congressional primary, that was going to go forward as planned. And so people would risk their safety to go vote for a congressional primary candidate, but they would be relieved of that obligation or that duty in the presidential primary. It just didn’t make any sense.
Peter B. Collins: And I believe a federal judge intervened and reinstated the presidential primary in New York, but there was a threat of litigation to overturn that. And that becomes another confusion factor just like we saw in Wisconsin.
Gabriella Novello: Sure. To add to that confusion, this past Friday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments to try to… Officials want to overturn that lower court ruling. I mean, as you said, the congressional primaries were still going to be happening. Same thing with the state and local races. And I think that as long as voters, they treat the election as if they’re… Even regardless if the presidential primary is on the ballot, there are still other races that are going to be happening, and it’s their decision whether or not they want to cast a ballot for those primary races, whether or not the presidential primary race is on that ballot.
Peter B. Collins: And Gabriella, just coming back to mail-in voting for a couple of other points, one is that the deadline varies. In some states you have to have it postmarked by midnight of election day. In other jurisdictions, it has to be received by the registrar on election day. So that is a variable. And as you point out, this is going to slow the vote count. The TV coverage is going to be probably frustrating to those well-paid anchors who want to be able to point to the map and show how the vote count is moving for various races. And the exit polls will also be of limited value, particularly when you try to compare one state to another. We’re going to see many variables there, and I think that people need to be prepared for that.
Peter B. Collins: Stacey Abrams, the candidate for Georgia Governor who lost in a very close and highly contested race in 2018, she was quoted by The New York Times warning people, just like you have, that you must be prepared for a slow tabulation in order to get all these votes counted.
Gabriella Novello: Yeah. I think that one of the things you mentioned that’s important to point out is exit polling, and we often see on the chyrons of most cable channels, you’ll see percentages of the issues that mattered to voters, who voted because they care about Medicare for all, who voted because they care about taxes and the supreme court. Those kinds of polling numbers are effectively useless come the November election if we have a majority of voters voting by mail. And also during the primary elections, if voters are voting by mail and we have a third of the voters voting in person, that might not necessarily give you a fair representation of what brought voters out, where they are right now. I think taking a step back and just waiting.
Gabriella Novello: One of the things that I was told that I think is just to the point, elections are not drive-through restaurants. Sometimes to get it right, you have to wait. And I think that’s probably the best piece of advice I would give to any other reporter that’s covering the elections. Don’t try to be the first person to get something. Be right about it. Take the time to make sure you’ve understood how many voters are going to be voting by mail. Contact the county registrar’s office, ask them how many ballots have been requested, how many have been returned. If you’re going to go to a polling place, pop in really quick, ask how the numbers have been, and head out because they might not be the best way to get the full picture on election day.
Gabriella Novello: It’s really going to be… A lot of tough decisions are going to have to be made when newsrooms across the country are covering either the primary or the general election, but there’s still enough time to get it right. And I think if we’re starting now, then we can get it right.
Peter B. Collins: And also, the campaign consultants are very cognizant of a kind of perception management. Let’s use California, all right? We already show about 72% of voters using mail-in ballots, and Governor Newsom has ordered that this November, every registered voter will receive a mail-in ballot. Some people will mail them in a week before the election, and those will be available for the registrars to report on election night. You can deliver a mail-in ballot to your polling place. You can put it in the mail on election day and it won’t be received maybe until Friday or Saturday of election week. The numbers that get released will reflect the people who voted early, and that is often used to try to create the perception that, oh, we’re winning.
Peter B. Collins: And it doesn’t matter whether the rest of the votes… It’s not whether they’re counted, but you’ve already created the perception that your candidate has won. And we’ve seen that once that sticks in people’s mind, particularly in the 2000 and 2004 elections that were very, very close, and at least in 2000, it took until mid-December to resolve it, we see that there is a rush to say you’re guy one or you’re gal one and hope that that sticks.
Gabriella Novello: Yeah. But since we’re talking about California with this year, as we’ve seen… I mean, just because early returns show one thing, it doesn’t always mean that’s what’s going to happen in the end. This year with the San Diego mayoral race, the third place candidate was… They had a pretty big difference between them and the second place candidate. But as the votes came in everyday, we saw that lead get a little bit smaller until ultimately the second place candidate and third place candidate switched places. Anything can really happen even if you’re getting the results. People are mailing in their ballots well before the deadline.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and we have the Top-Two Primary here in California. You have to play second among all voters. It’s not a matter of just winning in your particular political party. And we also have the recent special election north of Los Angeles where President Trump was very focused on it. And he, of course, believes that mail-in balloting is bad for Republicans. And so, just before the election, he tweeted a bunch of complaints that at the request of a Republican mayor, an additional polling place had been added in one community. And it was because it was something like nine miles for many voters to reach a polling place before they added that extra one.
Peter B. Collins: And so then Trump announced that the Democrats were rigging it by opening a polling place, and he’s the one who says that voting at the polls is safer for Republicans than voting by mail. And ultimately, we don’t have the final count, but Republican Mike Garcia is well ahead of the Democrat Christy Smith. I think it’s just embarrassing for the President when he tries to get into the weeds of the election process and appears to be working both sides of the question.
Gabriella Novello: Well, ultimately I think that if voters want to make sure that they’re getting the most accurate, up to date information about how to vote and what is the safest most secure way of voting in their state, I always say go to your local county election officials. They are the ones working in your community. They tend to know everything that’s going on and they’re probably your best resource if you are unsure of what to do or how to vote. I think that that’s probably the best way to be getting your information about how to and when to vote.
Peter B. Collins: Gabriella, I want to try to weigh the pros and cons of this shift to voting by mail because on the one hand, it’s more convenient for people. We can hope for higher participation rates. We can’t call it turnout if you don’t go to the polls, I guess. But there are these anomalies of different requirements. As you pointed out, New York, it’s not so easy to get a mail-in ballot. Other states require a witness to the signature. And ultimately people who are not trained in graphology, the people who work and count the ballots, have to decide whether a signature on the envelope matches the one on file, and most of that is done out of the sight of any neutral observers.
Peter B. Collins: And so we have to rely on their skills to say, “Well, this chicken scratch is not the same as the chicken scratch that they gave us when they registered to vote.”
Gabriella Novello: Sure. The exact match that you’re talking about, just to explain that a little further, some states have the requirement where when you’re registering to vote, that signature on that voter registration application, if that doesn’t exactly match, if there’s a hyphen missing or if there’s an extra space or a different capitalization, something silly like that, on your actual ballot that you’re mailing in, something like that could cause a poll worker election official that’s counting those ballots to say, “That’s not the ballot and we’re not going to count it.”
Gabriella Novello: It can be disqualified, but there are efforts to roll that back, whether it be in the courts or just voting rights groups working with officials, asking them to lift that requirement. But yeah, I mean, something as simple as a hyphen missing on one signature can cause a ballot to be considered invalid. And we see that in quite a few states, unfortunately.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and let me use myself as an example. Okay? I don’t recall how exactly I signed my name the last time I registered to vote. And I often, just to be lazy, will just sign with my initials, PB Collins. And maybe I actually signed it Peter Collins or maybe the full Peter B. Collins when I registered, and I honestly don’t remember. When I fill out my ballot and mail it in, it could be a variation of one of those three possibilities. And it is up to somebody who examines that envelope before it’s opened and then submitted for tabulation to make that decision. And I think that is a subjective decision, and I do have some concerns about that.
Gabriella Novello: Just to put a little bit of hope in this conversation, there are some efforts to lift these restrictions and make it a little bit more clear for voters. And in some states, if you submit a ballot and there was a mistake, some officials are creating an opportunity for voters to come back and make that correction within a reasonable amount of time. If they left something out on their ballot, or if they didn’t write their name with… For example, my middle initial is a T. If I didn’t put Gabriella T. Novello on my ballot, but my voter registration had the middle initial, some states would allow me to come in and say, “No, this is me. I just forgot to put my initial. Yes, my ballot is good,” and then it’ll be counted.
Gabriella Novello: It remains to be seen whether or not more states will take that route.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and in large counties, you’re not going to get that level of customer service. Sorry.
Gabriella Novello: That’s also true.
Peter B. Collins: Gabriella-
Gabriella Novello: One can hope.
Peter B. Collins: …I want to turn to one of your most recent stories, which is about the Supreme Court oral arguments. You posted this on May 14th about the so-called faithless electors who were elected, so to speak, to the electoral college in their states and they wanted to change their vote. Number one, I think it’s interesting that because the court did not meet in the actual courthouse, it was open for reporters like you to cover it, instead of the limited number of reporters who have the credentials to be there in person in the chambers for oral arguments. Give us a quick thumbnail of what you picked up from the presentation of the attorneys.
Peter B. Collins: Larry Lessig was one of those who supported the rights of these so-called faithless electors, and I think it’s a pretty interesting set of arguments.
Gabriella Novello: Oh man, yeah. There was one thing that stood out to me probably. It didn’t necessarily make sense because at one point, the attorneys for these so-called faithless electors claimed that these electors could vote for whomever they want so long as it was a person. And Chief Justice Roberts had interrupted and was like, “Not a giraffe?” I mean, of course, they have to vote for a person. Like they’re not going to vote for anything other than a person.
Gabriella Novello: It was kind of like they were very much making the argument, the attorneys for the electors, that they have the same discretion to vote as any other voter would, and that a pledge to cast their electoral college vote for whichever candidate wins the statewide popular vote, they argued it was a moral obligation, and that once a state appoints an elector, they disappear after that and it’s the elector’s decision. I don’t think the Supreme Court was taking to that argument because as the attorneys were arguing that putting all of these, you can replace an elector, you can find an elector if they don’t abide by the pledge, that could create chaos.
Gabriella Novello: But it appeared that the justices were saying that having free rein for these electors would also create chaos. It remains to be seen how they’ll vote, but it didn’t seem that the justices were quick to accept their arguments.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I have mixed feelings about this because number one, if the electors are bound to vote the way they’re instructed, then they’re just rubber stamps, and the Electoral College is meaningless. On the other hand, as I… and I don’t claim to be an expert on the Founding Fathers, but as I understand it, they saw the Electoral College as a way to limit the rise of a dangerous populist and to prevent kind of hotheaded voters from picking the wrong person, and that this was an intermediate group who basically would buffer the will of extreme voters in order to try to represent the broad population.
Peter B. Collins: I was kind of rooting for these so-called faithless electors back in 2016, that in the face of a very close election, the rise of what I personally consider to be a dangerous populace, that they would use that discretion. And here in California, we had several electors who wanted to, pardon me, become unbound, and the Democratic leaders did not want that to happen. I feel that if the electoral college is to have any meaningful role, you have to allow electors to make up their own minds.
Gabriella Novello: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of debate around this whether to entirely scrap the electoral college and swap it with a nationwide popular vote. There’s an effort known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would basically once enough states sign on to have a majority of electoral college votes, the compact would go into effect. And what would happen is whatever the outcome is for a state’s popular vote, those electoral college votes would simply go to the winner of the statewide popular vote and all states would agree at that point to do the same thing. Therefore, we wouldn’t have a case where electors could essentially go against what the state wanted. But that is still pretty far out of the realm right now.
Gabriella Novello: Not enough states have signed on to that, but that’s one of the solutions to try to keep the electoral college in place. People say it’s a way to put more states into play. When you talk to folks that are trying to push this compact through, they say instead of having five or six states at play, you have to visit every single state now, otherwise you’re not going to get those electoral college votes. It’s interesting. I mean, there’s a couple of different ways that people are trying to appease people that don’t like the electoral college, but also might not be comfortable getting rid of it just yet.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I want to thank you for joining us today and for your great reporting at WhoWhatWhy. You’ve got a lot more to cover in this exciting election year, and I will be watching for your reports.
Gabriella Novello: Yeah. Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Peter B. Collins: Our guest is Gabriella Novello. She is the election integrity reporter here at WhoWhatWhy.org. Thanks for listening to this radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast with Election Integrity reporter Gabriella Novello. Send your comments to peter@peterbcollins.com, and please support our original independent reporting on elections here at WhoWhatWhy.org.

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