Insights and Impact

Hindsight 2020


An illustrated pair of glasses shows a ballot being cast

Ten days before the 2020 election, two absentee voters were sweating their absent ballots.

Texans Meredith Reilly, SPA/BA ’22, and Zachary Houdek, SIS/BA ’22, are passionate about politics. They argued for election reform during high school speech and debate competitions, cast their first ever votes in the 2018 midterms, and texted friends about looming registration deadlines as the contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden heated up.

Last fall, as one of the most polarizing presidential elections in United States history approached, the friends applied for absentee ballots by mail from DC. Then, they waited, their excitement turning to worry by late October.

Reilly followed up with the Tarrant County Board of Elections, emailing a backup application. But under Texas state law, county officials replied, the form was invalid unless it was returned by mail or delivered in person. Houdek also struggled to find clarification on Travis County’s clunky elections website.

“Deep down, I think we knew that we were never going to get our ballots,” Houdek says.

By October 25, they finally processed that their applications had gone unprocessed. “We looked at each other,” Reilly says, “and said it out loud.” We might not get to vote.

Three hours later, they settled into a rented Volkswagen Golf for the 1,300-mile journey to the Lone Star State to vote early in person. They passed the birthplace of their state’s founder, Stephen F. Austin. They sang along to Hamilton. They reveled in their civic impulsiveness and lamented a lack of voting reforms, like universal online registration, that would have rendered the road trip unnecessary. Reilly and Houdek also reflected on their privilege as students with the flexibility and means to change their voting plan. Many Americans, faced with similar obstacles, simply couldn’t have gotten to the polls.

The ambitious Eagles cast just two of more than 158 million ballots in the 2020 presidential election, but their journey symbolized the contest’s complexities. Our 59th presidential election brought out the best in Americans, as determined voters broke turnout records despite a global pandemic and dedicated officials and poll workers adapted to new guidelines and counted every vote. It offered the promise of expanded voting options, but also revealed that our neglected election infrastructure—like an overwhelmed, underfunded mail system—struggles to facilitate them. It also left us to wonder: Did 2020 prove our electoral system’s resilience against shocks? Or did we just get lucky?

“We pulled off something rather remarkable,” says David Barker, AU government professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “We held an election in the middle of a pandemic, with states reworking their electoral processes on the fly and the head of the executive branch challenging that system and encouraging everyone else to challenge it. It doesn’t mean that American democracy doesn’t face some very serious [threats], but the election guardrails seem to have held.”

The irony for the traveling Texans? Their voyage ended with surprisingly easy votes. Houdek waited 15 minutes at his polling place, and Reilly waltzed in without a line.

When the clock struck 8 p.m. on November 3, 65,800 registered voters in Nevada County, California, had cast a ballot. More than 90 percent of them did so before Election Day.

Natalie Adona, WCL/JD ’14, SPA/MPA ’15, wasn’t surprised by the early—and enthusiastic—turnout, even while COVID-19 presented logistical nightmares for election administrators. “I had a high degree of confidence that we would be successful,” says the county’s assistant registrar.

Located an hour northeast of Sacramento, Nevada County was one of California’s first to implement the 2016 Voter’s Choice Act, under which every registered voter receives a ballot to return by mail or drop box or surrender to vote in person. Mail voting was part and parcel to the 2018 midterms in Nevada County and a state assembly runoff in fall 2019, Adona’s first election on the job— so she felt prepared.

Most of America followed the Golden State’s lead: 45 states and the District of Columbia allowed universal or excuse-free mail voting, and 40 states and DC used drop boxes. The scope of those changes varied dramatically, however. Ohio permitted just one drop box per county, while Maryland fanned out 282 across its 24 counties. And lawmakers in states like Georgia are already signaling that they will restrict vote by mail in future elections. Some erroneously questioned its legality, but wider access to the ballot and more time to cast it were popular policies in 2020. More than 101 million Americans—nearly two-thirds of voters—chose mail or early voting, according to the US Elections Project.

“The pandemic has accelerated access to voting like it’s accelerated the way we work and the way classes are held,” Barker says. “We probably jumped forward three or four electoral cycles out of necessity, and people who like the opportunity to vote at their convenience via any number of methods aren’t going to want to go back now.”

Adona fixated not on mail, but polling places and people. She had to identify alternate sites for five of her county’s eight voting centers that were too small to allow for proper social distancing and bring a green workforce—70 percent of whom were brand new—up to speed. She advertised in local media and on Nextdoor and scoured a California Secretary of State portal, gathering 350 applicants for 110 positions—including retrieving ballots from the county’s 22 drop boxes, a two-person job.

Elections are a game of Whac-A-Mole; with every problem solved, another surfaces. In Nevada County, vote centers needed safe layouts. Workers required PPE. Two key members of Adona’s staff quit 30 days before the election. An impromptu Trump rally one Sunday afternoon overran a parking lot and blocked a drop box. A few voters, reminded of electioneering or mask rules, became aggressive with poll workers. And while most people opted to use drop boxes, Adona had to reassure some that the mail was safe, even if she couldn’t vouch for its speed.

“It’s the bane of an election official’s existence—something going on that you have to deal with but that you have absolutely no control over,” she says.

As Election Day turned to night, Adona felt nervous. It was almost too quiet. Even with the bulk of her county’s ballots cast and tabulated, she was planning to stick around until the early morning, but received a midnight all-clear from the secretary of state’s office.

Looks like you’re all done. Congratulations.

Just as she had done on Election Days past as a Caltech doctoral student, Silvia Kim hit the pavement on November 3. The School of Public Affairs professor walked seven miles through Northwest Washington, stopping to observe several polling places in Wards 2 and 3.

For Kim, who is careful to stand clear of voters and workers, it’s an information-gathering exercise, a chance for a quantitative analyst to gather qualitative details about procedures and problems: Are people claiming to be registered and not showing up in the database? What does the routine look like for surrendering a mail ballot? Are machines working? Are lines long?

The latter was a resounding no (most Washingtonians voted early or by mail) and nothing appeared amiss, but she nonetheless finds academic—and occasionally persuasive—value in election transparency.

“Sometimes not watching how people work can exacerbate wrong notions that there is something sinister going on,” Kim says. “As insufficient as it might seem, [observation] can convince voters—even one by one—that this system can serve us well.”

The government professor’s work also demonstrates the critical role of data to verify what the human eye cannot. In Securing American Elections: How Data-Driven Election Monitoring Can Improve Our Democracy, Kim and three coauthors used the 2018 midterms in Orange County, California, as a test case. Employing statistical methods, they found that administrative errors and scheduling quirks explained rare inconsistencies, like turnout anomalies at two of 1,546 precincts and large updates to the voter registration database. The election was free and fair.

Published in November 2020, the book served as a well-timed reminder that voter fraud is highly unusual, and that technological investments can prevent mishaps and protect electoral systems.

Gabrielle Velasco, national coordinator for election protection with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, spent 2020 safeguarding another critical aspect of elections: the vote itself.

Velasco, SIS/BA ’15, SPA/MPA ’19, began the year expecting to tackle issues typically faced by voters in marginalized communities, including improperly applied voter ID laws, obtuse provisional ballot rules, and a lack of polling locations—more than 1,200 of which have been shuttered in the American South since 2013, when the US Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“That’s not to say these issues magically disappeared,” Velasco says, “but the pandemic also highlighted new inequalities and gaps in election administration.”

The nonpartisan civil rights organization took up fights—sometimes unsuccessfully—for convenience measures, like curbside voting and fear of COVID as a qualifying excuse for an absentee ballot, and against laws like Wisconsin’s absentee ballot witness signature requirement.

Velasco’s team trained election protection volunteers in 33 states to monitor polling places for closures, delays, long lines, voter intimidation, and rules issues. It also staffed a hotline—866-OUR-VOTE—for voters to report problems and ask questions of legal volunteers: How do I apply for an absentee ballot? How do I cure a ballot? And, most frequently, Do I still have time to make it to the polls?

The phones are still ringing just as Velasco continues to dial up her efforts to protect elections. The 2020 campaign may be behind us, but every year is an election year.

In red states and blue, it’s typically the white-haired workforce that keeps things running smoothly on Election Day. According to the Election Assistance Commission, 58 percent of poll workers in 2018 were 61 or older—but that number dropped dramatically in 2020 due to COVID concerns, forcing officials to address shortfalls to avoid precinct consolidation.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, had to replace 250 regulars. Philadelphia sought—and secured—thousands of additional volunteers. All tiny Harvard, Massachusetts, needed was Lucy Opalka.

On September 20, Opalka, SIS/BA ’20, started as the elections clerical worker for the town of 6,500. The former intern for Emerge America, which works to elect Democratic women, had an appreciation for the political process—a prerequisite for a job that forced her to live and breathe it for two months. 

Opalka immediately fielded calls from residents requesting absentee and mail ballots. When the first batch was delivered—late, as was the case in many parts of the US—in the first week of October, “we dropped everything,” Opalka says. Armed with fingertip moistener, she and the town clerk braved inevitable papercuts and stuffed ballots into envelopes. They alerted the local mail carrier, who took them straight to mailboxes, and received the first completed ballot a day later.

With each one that arrived, Opalka checked off names in two weighty logs. She filed the ballots in a cabinet organized by street name, where they sat until October 30, when she spent 10 hours opening envelopes with a razor blade to save time on Election Night.

Meanwhile, in nearby Worcester, Julie McDermott, SPA/BA ’20, watched scores of nervous people surrender mail ballots to make their selections in person during two weeks of early voting in Massachusetts. Limited space meant there was a delay in feeding machines, agitating voters who wanted to witness their ballot being counted.

“We had to reassure people: ‘It doesn’t matter if you mail it, put it in the drop box, or do it here right now, it’s all going to be counted,’” McDermott says. “I was there while the votes were counted. I made sure that they were flat enough to go through the machine. I understand people were worried, but we really care.”

As thousands of strangers streamed through enclosed spaces to practice their civic duty, poll workers diligently adhered to COVID safety guidelines. McDermott wiped down voting booths after every use. Shayna Rutman, SPA/BA ’24, sat behind a Plexiglas barrier while checking in voters at a San Diego elementary school, cleaning her stylus and iPad every hour or voter. Only one among the 365 she encountered over four days refused to wear a mask, opting to vote outside. Opalka fretted throughout the cycle—she, her mother, and her boss are at higher risk of severe illness due to COVID—but was pleased with the staff’s efficient use of space as it cycled through the last 1,000 voters on Election Day.

Over the next week, the last absentee and military ballots trickled in, and Opalka’s job wound down. She packed up the ballots, placing them in a vault for 22 months—per federal law—and reflected. Opalka celebrated her team’s hard work and her town’s count—Harvard’s 4,157 ballots represented a 90.98 percent turnout, the highest in the state—but she also felt a wave of relief. A pressure-packed election marked by mail delays and misinformation was finally over.

“With everything that was happening, a part of me is shocked that we were able to pull it off.”

November marked the first time San Diego’s Rutman voted—but her second stint as a poll worker. She was hooked on the rush of civic pride and the $13.50 an hour didn’t hurt, either. She made small talk with voters, befriended colleagues, and made plans to return for another election cycle.

But one moment on the last day of voting rattled her. A man approached her table decked out in QAnon gear. He was respectful, Rutman says, but “it was uncomfortable. He voted and left. I remember my leg shaking under the table.”

Dedication and ingenuity dragged the 2020 election across the finish line, but not without a palpable unease.

Adona felt it in her purple county as rhetoric around the election heated up, and as she watched counterparts in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and other states suffer abuse for doing their jobs. She worried about the people answering phones at the county’s office. When she trained poll workers, she warned them about “those one or two people dead set on making your day hell.” There were times when she left the office at dark and wondered, “Was it a good idea for me to leave by myself?”

Opalka watched an emotionally draining election reveal the best and worst of her town. One woman, giddy as she waited to vote, pointed to each poll worker and said, “You’re the best. Thank you.” Another, irate about a state ID requirement for inactive voters, screamed at Opalka, accusing her and her colleagues of conspiracy.

Tensions clouded the judgment of some in 2020, but perhaps when they dissipate, the truth about those who made it happen will emerge—that Opalka and her teammates helped their community make its voice heard, paying to overnight late ballots and making several calls to rectify each missed signature.

Or that Adona, who’s been training poll workers for 15 years, does not control the outcome of elections. She approaches each with a single goal in mind out of reverence for what’s at stake.

“I want everyone to vote.”

Dangerous Disbelief

The 2020 presidential election was far from the first with a bitterly divided electorate.

Disputed returns in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida placed the result of the 1876 election in question before a compromise calling for the end of Reconstruction landed Rutherford B. Hayes in the Oval Office. In 2000, Americans waited in limbo for a month before a decisive US Supreme Court ruling ended the Florida recount, awarding the presidency to George W. Bush.

But a mob, egged on by the losing candidate, delaying the certification of the winner? That’s “without precedent in the history of the presidency,” says Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at AU.

“What happened with Donald Trump lying about the results of a democratic election and riling up people to commit violence and overthrow our government in the service of a lie, is extraordinary.”

The January 6 insurrection was perpetrated by thousands, but millions of Americans believe the falsehood that precipitated it. A January Pew Research Center poll found that 34 percent of voters do not believe Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential contest.

The former president was not the only powerful person to baselessly cast doubt on the electoral process—but he was the most prolific. A Washington Post analysis found that Trump made 76 references to a “rigged election” between November 3 and January 20.

As we begin to wrestle with widespread distrust in the democratic process, at least one lesson is clear: words matter. Election-centered falsehoods can incite vitriol and even violence among a distrustful segment of voters and eliminate self-reflection from the political process. Rather than conceding gracefully in the wake of a loss and learning from mistakes, the 2020 election cycle might encourage future candidates to dig in their heels and continue fighting long after the last vote has been counted.

“[Our democracy] depends on shared confidence in the legitimacy of the electoral process,” says Washington College of Law adjunct professor Louis Caldera, who is teaching election law this spring. “Some supporters are so fired up that they’d rather see you attack the process than concede. That leaves us in a dark place.”

It is not immediately clear how we return to the light. Lichtman believes an important first step is the Biden administration demonstrating that it can effectively govern.

Looking back on an election she administered in Nevada County, California, Natalie Adona, WCL/JD ’14, SPA/MPA ’15, is deeply concerned, both personally and professionally. Our democratic institutions remain standing, but like the US Capitol itself, there are cracked windows and graffitied walls.

Adona hopes that Trump voters don’t opt out of the electoral process, or adopt “the attitude that voting is useless. Democracy depends on people believing in it,” she says. “I hope we can make the foundation of our institutions strong once again.”