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When Your Job Is to Make Sure Nov. 3 Isn’t a Disaster When Your Job Is to Make Sure Nov. 3 Isn’t a Disaster
(about 7 hours later)
A flood of mail-in ballots that will need processing. Foreign disinformation campaigns. A shortage of poll workers. And voters afraid of catching a potentially fatal disease at the ballot box.A flood of mail-in ballots that will need processing. Foreign disinformation campaigns. A shortage of poll workers. And voters afraid of catching a potentially fatal disease at the ballot box.
As the person in charge of carrying out a free and fair presidential election in a key swing state this November, Secretary of State Frank LaRose of Ohio is bracing for it all.As the person in charge of carrying out a free and fair presidential election in a key swing state this November, Secretary of State Frank LaRose of Ohio is bracing for it all.
He has visited the printing press to see the 17 semitrailer trucks lined up “like some scene out of ‘Smokey and the Bandit,’” ready to ship out 7.8 million absentee ballot forms — the most ever for Ohio.He has visited the printing press to see the 17 semitrailer trucks lined up “like some scene out of ‘Smokey and the Bandit,’” ready to ship out 7.8 million absentee ballot forms — the most ever for Ohio.
He fields calls in his work-from-home “driveway studio” (his car) from county officials unsure how they will iron the creases in heaps of wrinkled mail-in ballot envelopes so they can be read by automated machines.He fields calls in his work-from-home “driveway studio” (his car) from county officials unsure how they will iron the creases in heaps of wrinkled mail-in ballot envelopes so they can be read by automated machines.
He sets his own mother straight when she calls to ask if that post she saw on Facebook claiming voters’ party affiliations would be stamped across mail-in ballot envelopes is true (it’s not).He sets his own mother straight when she calls to ask if that post she saw on Facebook claiming voters’ party affiliations would be stamped across mail-in ballot envelopes is true (it’s not).
He recently tweeted a headline about an asteroid headed for Earth and wrote, “You can’t stop us 2020.”He recently tweeted a headline about an asteroid headed for Earth and wrote, “You can’t stop us 2020.”
“That’s the determination I bring to this,” said Mr. LaRose, a Republican.“That’s the determination I bring to this,” said Mr. LaRose, a Republican.
Mr. LaRose and other secretaries of state, who serve as the top elections officials in most states in what is usually a partisan elected position, are in charge of managing a chaotic, disinformation-prone, pandemic-plagued presidential vote that none of them envisioned when they took office.Mr. LaRose and other secretaries of state, who serve as the top elections officials in most states in what is usually a partisan elected position, are in charge of managing a chaotic, disinformation-prone, pandemic-plagued presidential vote that none of them envisioned when they took office.
They knew they would be facing a divided electorate this November.They knew they would be facing a divided electorate this November.
“But I don’t think any of us envisioned a global pandemic, right?” Mr. LaRose said.“But I don’t think any of us envisioned a global pandemic, right?” Mr. LaRose said.
That a sitting president has become the chief sower of distrust in the elections process has added new levels of exasperation for the officials whose days have already been spent rushing from top-secret briefings on thwarting Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns to making sure enough hand sanitizer is available at hundreds of polling places.That a sitting president has become the chief sower of distrust in the elections process has added new levels of exasperation for the officials whose days have already been spent rushing from top-secret briefings on thwarting Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns to making sure enough hand sanitizer is available at hundreds of polling places.
President Trump’s proclamations at Tuesday’s debate that there was no way the presidential election could be conducted without fraud, as well as frequent tweets along those lines, aren’t helping.President Trump’s proclamations at Tuesday’s debate that there was no way the presidential election could be conducted without fraud, as well as frequent tweets along those lines, aren’t helping.
“I have never been so upset about a sitting president attempting to undermine our elections in this way,” said Denise Merrill, the Connecticut secretary of state and a Democrat, who spent Wednesday morning replaying Mr. Trump’s remarks from the debate stage out of disbelief. “What he’s really doing is impugning the work of thousands of elections officials across the country — all those people in the towns and counties busy trying to maintain faith in the elections process.”“I have never been so upset about a sitting president attempting to undermine our elections in this way,” said Denise Merrill, the Connecticut secretary of state and a Democrat, who spent Wednesday morning replaying Mr. Trump’s remarks from the debate stage out of disbelief. “What he’s really doing is impugning the work of thousands of elections officials across the country — all those people in the towns and counties busy trying to maintain faith in the elections process.”
In search of solidarity, some secretaries of state, across party lines, have joined a group text where they share tips to help one another overcome election kinks.In search of solidarity, some secretaries of state, across party lines, have joined a group text where they share tips to help one another overcome election kinks.
“There are a lot of OMGs,” Ms. Merrill said.“There are a lot of OMGs,” Ms. Merrill said.
None of the officials want to be known as the 2020 version of Katherine Harris, who as Florida’s Republican secretary of state unexpectedly gained the attention of an anxious nation awaiting a winner in the 2000 election and became the butt of “Saturday Night Live” jokes.None of the officials want to be known as the 2020 version of Katherine Harris, who as Florida’s Republican secretary of state unexpectedly gained the attention of an anxious nation awaiting a winner in the 2000 election and became the butt of “Saturday Night Live” jokes.
In the current climate, many officials are reaching for Boy Scout-like earnestness.In the current climate, many officials are reaching for Boy Scout-like earnestness.
Mr. LaRose, a former Green Beret, says things like, “Both Republicans and Democrats should feel confident casting their ballot,” and, “There’s no good excuse for not voting.”Mr. LaRose, a former Green Beret, says things like, “Both Republicans and Democrats should feel confident casting their ballot,” and, “There’s no good excuse for not voting.”
Mr. LaRose has been involved in several actions that critics say have made it harder for some people to confidently cast a ballot. Last year, he was criticized for overseeing an aggressive voter roll purge that included erroneously notifying a significant number of people that they were inactive voters. At the time, he said this was a sign of the process working, so people could correct the record. He has, however, been involved in several actions that critics say have made it harder for some people to confidently cast a ballot. Last year, he was criticized for overseeing an aggressive voter roll purge that included erroneously notifying a significant number of people that they were inactive voters. At the time, he said this was a sign of the process working, so people could correct the record.
More recently, the Ohio Democratic Party sued to challenge his decision to limit the number of drop boxes for ballots at each county office, and a judge agreed. “I’m a loyal Republican but I run fair elections,” Mr. LaRose said.
Sometimes, when considering the enormousness of the task ahead to pull off this historic election, he stops himself midsentence and marvels at it all: “Just the scale of this,” he says, and doesn’t finish the thought.Sometimes, when considering the enormousness of the task ahead to pull off this historic election, he stops himself midsentence and marvels at it all: “Just the scale of this,” he says, and doesn’t finish the thought.
Record numbers of people are expected to vote by mail this fall to avoid potential exposure to Covid-19. Several states have put into place new measures that make it easier to request absentee ballots, and some states have mailed ballots to all registered voters.
In Ohio, officials can begin early processing of mail-in ballots in early October. But laws in other states prevent ballot processing until after the polls close on Election Day. Secretaries of state are rolling out public information campaigns to assure citizens that the outcome will be legitimate even if results are delayed.In Ohio, officials can begin early processing of mail-in ballots in early October. But laws in other states prevent ballot processing until after the polls close on Election Day. Secretaries of state are rolling out public information campaigns to assure citizens that the outcome will be legitimate even if results are delayed.
..
Mr. LaRose likes to remind voters of a plaque marking the spot where Abraham Lincoln was standing inside the Ohio governor’s office in 1861 when he learned his election to the presidency had been certified, four months after the vote was held. In Maine, officials are bracing for a long counting process.
In Maine, where absentee ballots can be tallied only after polls close, officials are bracing for a long counting process.
During the 2016 election, 140 voters went online to request absentee ballots the first day the process opened, said Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state. This year, 2,000 voters requested ballots — in the first hour. The first day’s total requests approached 20,000, he said.During the 2016 election, 140 voters went online to request absentee ballots the first day the process opened, said Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state. This year, 2,000 voters requested ballots — in the first hour. The first day’s total requests approached 20,000, he said.
“It’s the candy factory episode of ‘I Love Lucy,’” said Mr. Dunlap, a Democrat. “We’re just trying to keep up.”“It’s the candy factory episode of ‘I Love Lucy,’” said Mr. Dunlap, a Democrat. “We’re just trying to keep up.”
The office of secretary of state can be a sleepy post, often considered a steppingstone to higher office. It always buzzes with activity at election time, with officials coordinating logistics and navigating last-minute lawsuits.The office of secretary of state can be a sleepy post, often considered a steppingstone to higher office. It always buzzes with activity at election time, with officials coordinating logistics and navigating last-minute lawsuits.
This year, many said they had fielded more partisan-driven litigation and were waiting on politically divided legislatures to take action on pandemic-related measures that are critical to making sure the vote goes smoothly.This year, many said they had fielded more partisan-driven litigation and were waiting on politically divided legislatures to take action on pandemic-related measures that are critical to making sure the vote goes smoothly.
All of this is playing out under deadlines set up for normal times, back before having to worry about whether fire stations, gymnasiums and school lobbies used as polling places were big enough to allow for social distancing and whether county clerks could handle an onslaught of mailed-in ballots.All of this is playing out under deadlines set up for normal times, back before having to worry about whether fire stations, gymnasiums and school lobbies used as polling places were big enough to allow for social distancing and whether county clerks could handle an onslaught of mailed-in ballots.
Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, has been steeped in the mechanics of ballot counting for individual counties, making sure they have the tools they need.Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, has been steeped in the mechanics of ballot counting for individual counties, making sure they have the tools they need.
“Who knew there were machines called ‘envelopers?’” she said, explaining the devices that are used to quickly slice open envelopes to retrieve ballots inside.“Who knew there were machines called ‘envelopers?’” she said, explaining the devices that are used to quickly slice open envelopes to retrieve ballots inside.
Another relatively unknown device before the coronavirus outbreak, drop boxes, the tamper-proof containers where voters can return absentee ballots without risking human contact, have taken on new importance.Another relatively unknown device before the coronavirus outbreak, drop boxes, the tamper-proof containers where voters can return absentee ballots without risking human contact, have taken on new importance.
In states like Oregon, dozens of drop boxes must be moved from inside public buildings now deemed unsafe because of the pandemic to the outside of buildings, a mundane but major logistical task. In Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, drop boxes were caught up in litigation over how many are allowed to be set up and the deadlines voters have for placing ballots inside them. The Trump campaign has claimed that they could potentially allow fraud. South Carolina plans an audit of all ballots left inside drop boxes, and Georgia is training security cameras on many of them.In states like Oregon, dozens of drop boxes must be moved from inside public buildings now deemed unsafe because of the pandemic to the outside of buildings, a mundane but major logistical task. In Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, drop boxes were caught up in litigation over how many are allowed to be set up and the deadlines voters have for placing ballots inside them. The Trump campaign has claimed that they could potentially allow fraud. South Carolina plans an audit of all ballots left inside drop boxes, and Georgia is training security cameras on many of them.
Drop box drama — and pandemic-inspired election drama in general — was something no one saw coming, said Mr. Dunlap of Maine.Drop box drama — and pandemic-inspired election drama in general — was something no one saw coming, said Mr. Dunlap of Maine.
He recalled an evening in early February when he and his peers from other states were decompressing at a bar in Washington after their annual National Association of Secretaries of State convention. A news report flashed across the television showing scenes from Wuhan, China, where a new virus was causing havoc.He recalled an evening in early February when he and his peers from other states were decompressing at a bar in Washington after their annual National Association of Secretaries of State convention. A news report flashed across the television showing scenes from Wuhan, China, where a new virus was causing havoc.
“None of us were really processing what was happening before our very eyes,” Mr. Dunlap said.“None of us were really processing what was happening before our very eyes,” Mr. Dunlap said.
Reality hit quickly as the virus spread throughout the United States, and officials in many states had to pull off primary elections as cases were peaking.Reality hit quickly as the virus spread throughout the United States, and officials in many states had to pull off primary elections as cases were peaking.
Mr. Dunlap, whose office also oversees motor vehicle licensing, is applying tactics learned in the primary — one is distributing free pens to voters to avoid the hassle of sanitizing them — to November’s elections.Mr. Dunlap, whose office also oversees motor vehicle licensing, is applying tactics learned in the primary — one is distributing free pens to voters to avoid the hassle of sanitizing them — to November’s elections.
All of the prepping is going on even as Mr. Dunlap is shepherding the transportation of 100 million records into storage for his office’s asbestos remediation. He also squeezes into his calendar time for climbing in the passenger’s seat to personally administer road tests to help clear the backlog of about 6,000 aspiring drivers delayed in getting their drivers’ license while the office was closed because of the virus.All of the prepping is going on even as Mr. Dunlap is shepherding the transportation of 100 million records into storage for his office’s asbestos remediation. He also squeezes into his calendar time for climbing in the passenger’s seat to personally administer road tests to help clear the backlog of about 6,000 aspiring drivers delayed in getting their drivers’ license while the office was closed because of the virus.
“Yes,” Mr. Dunlap said, “it’s nuts.”“Yes,” Mr. Dunlap said, “it’s nuts.”
Among their biggest worries, secretaries of state cited adequate staffing at the polls for people who want to vote in person. Most poll workers in America are older, making them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.Among their biggest worries, secretaries of state cited adequate staffing at the polls for people who want to vote in person. Most poll workers in America are older, making them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
Several states have embraced programs to encourage more volunteers. The American Bar Association is offering continuing education credit to lawyers and law students who sign up for poll worker training. Some Realtor associations are doing the same. In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Penguins are giving employees a day off to work at voting booths. In Ohio, barber shops and cosmetology schools have introduced poll worker recruitment programs. Several states have embraced programs to encourage more volunteers. The American Bar Association is offering continuing education credit to lawyers and law students who sign up for poll worker training. Some Realtor associations are doing the same. In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Penguins are giving employees a day off to work at voting booths.
In Michigan, a swing state with 16 electoral votes up for grabs and one where Mr. Trump won by a slim margin in 2016, a utility company is providing poll workers. The state has recruited 26,000 workers but needs 4,000 more, said its secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, whose office is organizing efforts to find others.In Michigan, a swing state with 16 electoral votes up for grabs and one where Mr. Trump won by a slim margin in 2016, a utility company is providing poll workers. The state has recruited 26,000 workers but needs 4,000 more, said its secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, whose office is organizing efforts to find others.
“It’s never been lost on me from the moment I took office the unique moment in time Michigan is in,” said Ms. Benson, who before she took office wrote a book called “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process.”“It’s never been lost on me from the moment I took office the unique moment in time Michigan is in,” said Ms. Benson, who before she took office wrote a book called “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process.”
Mr. LaRose of Ohio hopes the recruitment efforts will help usher in a new generation of poll workers who never would have considered the job in the past.Mr. LaRose of Ohio hopes the recruitment efforts will help usher in a new generation of poll workers who never would have considered the job in the past.
“What Ohio needs right now are poll workers, not poll watchers,” he said, referring to Mr. Trump’s debate remarks urging his supporters to “go into the polls” and “watch very carefully,” which seemed to allude to voter intimidation.“What Ohio needs right now are poll workers, not poll watchers,” he said, referring to Mr. Trump’s debate remarks urging his supporters to “go into the polls” and “watch very carefully,” which seemed to allude to voter intimidation.
In his military service and as an elections observer, Mr. LaRose saw firsthand as Iraq, Kosovo, Ukraine and other countries hold successful elections under dramatic circumstances and is confident the United States can do the same. He envisions huge turnout on Election Day. In his military service and as an elections observer, Mr. LaRose saw firsthand as Iraq, Kosovo, Ukraine and other countries held successful elections under dramatic circumstances and is confident the United States can do the same.
“There’s no excuse to not vote,” he said.“There’s no excuse to not vote,” he said.