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A test for democracy

Experts worry about a nightmare election during a pandemic marred by disenfranchisement and chaos, followed by an acrimonious legal and political dispute over the results that would test the nation’s democratic resolve.

The warnings sound one state or city at a time. This will be an Election Day like no other.

In Denver, the capital of hotly contested Colorado, intimations of approaching trouble come early. Workers coughing at a ballot-printing facility are the first sign — an outbreak of coronavirus, right before ballots are set to go out.

Elsewhere in town, protests force the closure of an early voting site on a college campus, and an autumn blizzard renders some other voting centers unusable. A nameless malefactor falsely claims to have hacked the voter rolls, sowing unease in a critical hour. And many poll workers fail to show up, fearing COVID, leaving enormous lines of frustrated voters snaking down city blocks.

Across the nation, preemptive legal challenges are launched by both parties. Mailed in ballots pile up; some arrive too late to be counted, and others are thrown out over tiny mistakes. Rival, surly factions collide near polling places and government offices, as voting sites in Black, Latino, and immigrant neighborhoods report harassment and intimidation. Will federal officers move to intervene?

It is a nightmare scenario — nothing that has happened, or necessarily will. It is not a prediction, but rather a sum of the fears of those who closely track how the combination of pandemic and partisan extremes could test this country’s fragile election system as never before.

The Globe’s Washington Bureau staff fanned out last month and consulted voters, voting advocates, officials, and experts all over, including those who “gamed out” the Denver scenario. They see much to worry about, but also voiced optimism that elections officials and average Americans will take steps now to make sure votes are properly cast and counted, laying the groundwork for a peaceful and credible democratic outcome.

And yet, the anxiety. This is sure to be the most complicated election in modern US history. And because of our deliberately decentralized federal system, it will be, as ever, not one election but more like 10,000 — each precarious in its own way. Then there is the question of how a norm-shattering president will behave in the weeks that follow. The list of what could go wrong is longer than its hopeful counterpart.

The baseline fear going in is that millions of voters get left out — a concern that is hardly new in America. The electoral system here was a welcoming environment for voter suppression long before the US Supreme Court loosened the rules, and before this terrifying pandemic, especially for Black, poor, and young voters. The potential is very real for disenfranchisement on a vast scale.

And so it is, this day — this vision of an election gone haywire.

Absentee ballots requested in record amounts by voters during the pandemic don’t arrive, forcing local officials to reissue them as people worry they will lose their chance to vote. Sudden changes to state laws or court decisions scuttle weeks of planning by elections officials.

President Trump is no help. He has repeatedly warned his supporters against mail-in ballots, so more Republicans vote in person than usual, adding to the crowds. Lines stretch outside the doors of high school gyms, libraries, and town halls. They will be longer still in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Some voters give up and go home.

Those who mailed in their ballots wait as elections officials begin counting them — which will not start until Election Day in many states, and could take days or weeks. Ballots get thrown out because of mismatched signatures, or technical issues with the envelope or postmark, errors that can be fixed or avoided if a ballot comes back early enough, but will be impossible to cure if postal delays slow them down. Democratic lawyers race to the courthouse to stop more from being discarded. Republicans oppose them — the first steps in the legal trench warfare that will stretch for weeks, making the 2000 “hanging chad” election standoff look comparatively small bore. Will the Supreme Court, which could be stacked with another conservative after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, intervene?

Stacks of ballot envelopes.
Stacks of ballot envelopes waiting to be mailed were seen at the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

As officials urge Americans to be patient while the tallying continues, foreign adversaries, domestic operatives, and shadowy groups like QAnon jump into that vacuum, sowing confusion and distrust in the results online.

Get ready.

The election is six weeks from Tuesday and nothing is preordained except this: The success or failure of the contest between Trump and Joe Biden depends on the people on the front-line of democracy who plan to work to the last hour to ensure the outcome, whichever way it goes, is one we can believe in. What follows are portraits of some of these essential citizens, their worries, their quiet hopes, and the challenges they are almost sure to face.

'They're doing everything to stop us from voting'

The most fundamental question about America’s election system is this: Who can vote? In a nation with a warren of suppressive laws, it has fallen to activists like Kynesha Brown — propelled by four, 60, or 400 years of American history — to answer it.

On a Saturday night in August in Montgomery, Ala., as the Jefferson Davis High School marching band warmed up and cheerleaders with white bows in their hair revved up the crowd, Brown was outside the football stadium, armed with a stack of forms, a folding table, and three other volunteers to direct an urgent question to the passing teenagers: Are you registered to vote?

The women there could not change the fact that the US Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act their parents and grandparents had fought for, nor that state lawmakers have implemented restrictive new voting laws since. But they could do this.

“They’re doing everything to stop us from voting,” said volunteer Alicia Elmore, 55, as an 18-year-old named Timwon Walters filled out his first voter registration form. “Voter suppression is what it is — making it hard for us.”

High school football game.
A high school football game at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala. (Dan Anderson for The Boston Globe)
Kynesha Brown.
Kynesha Brown tried to get people to register to vote at a high school football game  in Montgomery, Ala., during the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Anderson for The Boston Globe)

This year, the pandemic, the sputtering postal service, and President Trump’s verbal assaults on the integrity of the electoral system, have raised the specter of widespread voter disenfranchisement. But those are simply new fractures in the bones of a system that has often seemed better at shutting out voters than protecting them. The right to participate in an American election — particularly if you are Black, brown, poor, or young — has always been fragile, and few voters know that better than those in Montgomery.

“I was born here, raised in an area that was pivotal to the civil rights movement,” said Brown, 39, whose grandmother joined the marches that swept through Alabama in the 1960s. Now she coordinates a group called Rollin to the Polls, which gives voters rides to voting places and increasingly does much more. “We made accomplishments,” Brown said, “but there’s still a long way to go.”

The push and pull of progress and regress are evident anywhere you look in Montgomery.

A mile from the stadium, a tall fountain, recently ringed with the words “Black Lives Matter,” flows on a site that used to be a slave market. There is a statue of Rosa Parks, commemorating how she boarded a bus there and refused to give up her seat to a white man, spurring the Montgomery bus boycott.

Protesters marched past the Rosa Parks statue in Montgomery, Ala.
Protesters marched past the Rosa Parks statue in Montgomery, Ala., during a protest over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

Straight down the street is the Alabama State House, where lawmakers gathered in 1901 for a constitutional convention intended to make white supremacy the law and to disenfranchise Black voters through literacy tests and poll taxes. More recently, legislators have passed a restrictive voter ID law and developed other policies that make it more cumbersome to vote.

“Alabama has conceived of voting as a right that the citizen must win from the state by clearing a series of qualifying and complex hurdles,” wrote Jenny Carroll, the chair of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, this year.

JoAnne Bland, 67, fought for the right to vote in 1965. She was 11 years old when she left a Selma playground for a march to Montgomery. She joined the group with her older sister, Lynda, and as they crested the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they saw policemen and state troopers with clubs arrayed on the other side.

“They were just beating people — old, young, Black, white, male, female, didn’t matter,” Bland recalled. She fainted and woke up in a car, her head on Lynda’s lap, with her sister’s tears and blood dripping down on her.

Five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, outlawing racist voting restrictions and requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing election laws. It was a huge step, albeit a late one — coming a century after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. But Bland soon realized victory would not be so simple.

“Since the Voting Rights Act, it’s been an attack ever since,” she said. “It seems as though we take one step forward and someone takes us back.”

The biggest step backward happened in 2013, when a Supreme Court ruling in case that had originated in Shelby County, Ala., stripped away the pre-clearance requirement that forced states to get federal approval before making major changes to voting rules. It was the central — indeed, almost the sole — mechanism for enforcing the Voting Rights Act’s guarantees, and its erasure unleashed a flood of new voting restrictions nominally targeting voter fraud but that seemed aimed at impeding participation by Black voters. Alabama’s new voter ID law went into effect the following year. Soon motor vehicle offices in predominantly Black parts of the state — common places to get IDs — closed, although the move was later reversed. Dozens of polling locations closed, too.

Quintarius Richards registered to vote.
Quintarius Richards registered to vote outside a high school football game in Montgomery, Ala. (Dan Anderson for The Boston Globe)

Alabama’s secretary of state, John H. Merrill, a Republican, has pointed out that Black voters in the state are registered and participate in elections at high rates. Activists say that happens in spite of restrictive laws.

“As people who have continually been disenfranchised, we’ve got to be the ones who fill in those gaps," Bland said.

That is the work of groups like Brown’s, dedicated to registering every voter they can, helping people obtain the necessary identification, and working with convicted felons to navigate the complex process to regain their voting rights. The pandemic, they say, makes every hurdle that much higher.

Their work often requires “being close to people, meeting people, gaining people’s trust, helping people overcome their fears,” said Scott Douglas, the executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, who works on voter enfranchisement.

“We’re very much concerned that the pandemic is making it harder for people to vote and to register to vote,” said Douglas, who has raised money to buy six tents for outdoor voter engagement events.

Alabama is the only state that gets an F from the Brookings Institution for its vote-by-mail preparation during the pandemic. The state does not allow early in-person voting, and two witnesses or a notary are required to sign an absentee ballot.

Voting rights activists are planning mobile events where they will help voters make copies of their IDs and provide witnesses to sign absentee ballots.

It is painstaking work, empowering one voter at a time.

“I told my mother,” Elmore said, at the table with Kynesha Brown outside the stadium, "I bet never in your dreams would you have imagined that I would be, and my siblings, and your grandchildren, would be fighting for the same thing you were fighting for in the ’60s, but here we are.”

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Trust in the elections process was already being eroded, and then the pandemic struck

On a sweltering August day in Miami, a line of cars crept slowly toward a tent staffed by two women encased in plastic face shields, masks, and gloves.

It almost looked as though the women were readying COVID-19 tests for Floridians laid low by the pandemic. But the fully outfitted volunteers weren’t wielding nasal swabs. Instead they grabbed primary ballots from voters’ lowered windows and dropped them, one by one, into one of just a handful of official ballot drop boxes in the county.

It is what voting has come to in 2020. And Florida is a reminder of how complicated it could be.

The secure ballot drop boxes were a popular attraction in Miami during the state’s primary election in mid-August, after President Trump spent weeks stirring up fears about mail-in voting and Democrats raised alarms about moves his administration was making that could slow down the US Postal Service. Absorbing the warnings, some voters — Republican and Democrat — who had planned to mail their ballots instead drove to precincts like this one, a library located in the north of the city, to personally deliver their votes.

A voter dropped off her mail ballot.
A voter dropped off her mail ballot to a Miami Dade Elections Department employee at the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens during state primary elections. (Angel Valentin For The Boston Globe)

“I wasn’t scared about COVID, I was scared about the ballot not reaching the supervisor of elections,” said Geisha Labour, 37, who decided to personally deliver her ballot after reading about mail delays in the news. “I just wanted to drop it off personally. ”

Labour is a Democrat, but caution wasn’t limited to those wary of Trump.

“I don’t want my vote manipulated,” said Cynthia Alfonso, a 28 year-old nursing aide who supports the president. “I came in person to make sure.”

Florida’s August primary provided a preview of the potential problems on Election Day this November in a crucial swing state known for producing nail-biter elections and the nation’s most famous recount 20 years ago. It also gave a glimpse into the minds of voters at a scary time in American life — one marked by a global pandemic, social unrest, and job losses.

But the most common fear expressed by Floridians who showed up to vote on Aug. 18 wasn’t any of those looming threats — it was that their ballot would not be counted at all. It’s an anxiety stoked by a president who seems determined to discredit any election result unfavorable to him and heightened by the uncertainty the coronavirus has lent to all the rituals of what we knew once as normal life.

States that have vote-by-mail, early voting, or same-day registration this year

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  • Available with excuse Available Applications automatically sent Ballots automatically sent
Alaska Hawaii Alabama Arkansas Arizona California Colorado Connecticut Delaware Florida Georgia Iowa Idaho Illinois Indiana Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Massachusetts Maryland Maine Michigan Minnesota Missouri Mississippi Montana North Carolina North Dakota Nebraska New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico Nevada New York Ohio Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota Tennessee Texas Utah Virginia Vermont Washington Wisconsin West Virginia Wyoming District of Columbia
Electoral College:
In-Person Early Voting:
Same Day Registration
Mail/Absentee Ballots:
2016 Presidential Election
2012 Presidential Election
2018 Turnout:
2018 Total Voter Turnout:
2018 Total Citizen Voting Age Population:
* County's choice
** Sent to anyone who voted since 2018
*** No voter registration required

Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting have flipped voting trends on their heads in Florida and some other states, where vote-by-mail has tended to skew older and Republican — including Trump, who voted absentee in the primary himself. Trump eventually tweeted that, in Florida specifically, it was “Safe and Secure” to vote by mail, but reassurance has been outrun by the doubts he sowed.

“Republicans are not hearing that nuanced message, they’re just hearing the 'mail ballots are bad’ message from Trump,” said Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida.

That’s evident in the data so far: Out of the more than 4 million voters in Florida who have already requested a November mail-in ballot, Democrats enjoy a more than 600,000 request lead over Republicans. Republicans are also lagging far behind Democrats in requesting ballots in other battleground states, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and polls show Republicans are far more skeptical of voting by mail than Democrats are.

Republicans voting at polling places could close that ballot difference on Election Day. During the primary, many older Floridians from both political parties said they were motivated to vote in person and planned to do so again on Nov. 3.

Milo Gonzalez, 87, a Republican, carefully packed his wife’s walker into their minivan after they cast their ballots in person. He said they wouldn’t consider mailing their votes.

“The president we have now, he’s not perfect; but compared to the others, I’d rather have him,” Gonzalez said, alluding darkly to potential “tricks” other politicians might be playing with the vote.

Despite his age, Gonzalez, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba decades ago, said he and his wife weren’t scared to vote in person. “I’m protected; we wash our hands,” he said, pointing to his face mask.

In-person early voting and mail-in ballots for the August primary — which included no statewide races — showed larger turnout overall than the more high-stakes 2018 primary. It’s a trend seen in other states: After an initial dip in turnout over coronavirus fears, participation is now smashing records in primaries, suggesting November will see record voting levels, as well.

Voters voted in person at a precinct in Miami's Legion Park.
Voters cast ballots at a precinct in Miami's Legion Park during state primary elections. (Angel Valentin For The Boston Globe)

Public health experts stress that voting in person is safe, as long as people wear masks and maintain distance, which can be difficult if polling sites become crowded.

Mail-in voting comes with its own risks, however. More than 1,200 ballots arrived too late to be counted in Volusia County despite being postmarked in time for the primary. Overall, 1.5 percent of mail-in ballots cast in the primary were rejected because they arrived late or had technical errors, according to an analysis for Politico.

Experts recommend voters fill out ballots by hand and then return them in person to drop boxes to avoid any delays.

If past elections are any indication, younger, first-time, and minority voters have more to lose when using mail-in ballots.

An ACLU analysis of the 2018 election in Florida found that Black and Latino voters were twice as likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected as white voters, due to a combination of errors filling them out and uneven standards in how counties process them. That has given many Black residents another fear: that their votes are being intentionally suppressed.

“What’s going on right now is disgusting,” said Bernice Adams, 77, who dropped off her 80-year-old husband to vote in person.

Jason Johnson, a 42-year-old systems engineer, said he was motivated to cast his ballot even more by the feeling that there were attempts to suppress his vote.

“If you tell me that I can’t do something, that just makes me drive harder,” he said. “The people’s voice needs to be heard."

How do you run 10,000 elections safely during a pandemic?

Claire Woodall-Vogg, Milwaukee’s highest-ranking election official, had to think outside the box — about boxes.

It was mid-August and the delays rippling through the US Postal Service had made specialized metal drop boxes — in which voters can deposit their absentee ballots instead of mailing them — the hottest piece of election equipment in the country.

Woodall-Vogg had already secured 15 red-white-and-blue boxes, but they wouldn’t arrive until Oct. 1, two weeks after absentee ballots in Wisconsin begin to go out. She needed something to tide the city over until then, but her options were evaporating quickly.

Overnight, the delivery date for the blue boxes she wanted had been delayed by two weeks. She picked out gray ones instead; they were ugly, but at least they would arrive in a few days. Or so she thought.

“Even the gray ones are back ordered?” Woodall-Vogg said into her cellphone, incredulous.

Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission.
Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, leaned on a ballot counting machine in the warehouse where they are being stored. (Sara Stathas For The Boston Globe)

If there is one thing that defines the 2020 election, it is uncertainty, forcing election administrators to navigate a landscape shifting by the day.

When COVID-19 disrupted the primaries, elections officials chased down hand sanitizer and face shields, scrambled to replace aging poll workers, and steeled their offices for an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots.

And now, the partisan volleying over the ground rules of the election has them anxiously watching for last-minute court decisions or new state laws that could upend their efforts all over again.

“We have a fragmented, polarized, decentralized, and under resourced electoral system,” said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine. “The fact that we have over 200 years of decentralized election administration and a constitution that doesn’t strongly protect the right to vote creates the conditions where access to the franchise is uneven and unequal.”

The country is not planning one election for Nov. 3 but rather 10,000, each run locally, one at a time, by officials like Woodall-Vogg in an environment that has been made more complex by the pandemic and the possibility of partisan meddling. It is up to clerks, poll workers, and mail carriers to pull it all off while avoiding long polling place lines and unsafe conditions, and minimizing the potential for mail-in ballots to arrive too late to be counted.

“The pandemic is a new curveball for us, but for the past decade, we’ve been operating in a voting landscape that has constant change, almost always right before an election,” said Woodall-Vogg.

“At what point in our democracy,” she asked, “did we say it’s OK to rewrite the rules so that your party wins?”

Wisconsin has been a poster child for the chaos that can come from those changes. Just in the last two weeks, the state Supreme Court briefly blocked the mailing of absentee ballots. As the pandemic set in, Republicans in the state and with the national party intervened to stop the state from accepting absentee ballots for six more days after its April 7 primary, which was held despite objections from Democrats, elections officials, and health experts. Milwaukee ended up with the staffing and facilities for only five polling places, creating long lines that became an indelible image — and a warning to the nation.

Mail-in voting explained: Due to coronavirus concerns, some states are expanding options for casting ballots by mail in the November election. Watch the video to understand how this process works. (Video produced and edited by Anush Elbakyan/ Globe staff. Illustrations by Brendan Lynch/ Globe staff.)

Some things have changed since. Woodall-Vogg, appointed this summer, got enough poll workers to open 170 polling places during another primary in August. Her warehouse was piled high with plexiglass shields and sanitizers to keep them safe, and she is planning on getting eight more high-speed absentee ballot counting machines.

Getting needed supplies and training new poll workers has not been easy everywhere. In Flint Township, Mich., town clerk Kathy Funk couldn’t find plexiglass dividers this spring. Instead, she and the town maintenance man rigged wooden frames hung with clear shower curtains from Dollar Tree to serve as protection at polling places.

“We anticipate 14,000 absentee ballots. ... We’ve never had anything like that before,” Funk said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

What’s more, she faces another problem: The disinformation about voting that spreads on Facebook. She is setting up her own town clerk’s Facebook page to counter it.

As November approaches, officials in other states are pointing to another sort of problem: They are still unsure what the rules are going to be. In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign and other Republicans have sued to block the state from using drop boxes. State lawmakers are haggling over reforms to mail voting.

“The fact that they’re considering changes in the General Assembly and the courts is forcing counties into limbo,” said Forrest Lehman, the director of elections in Lycoming County, Pa., who says elections officials are struggling to finalize ballots, train poll workers, and prepare materials.

He is also worried about the postal service. During the primary, he said, his county had to reissue some 400 absentee ballots to voters after they apparently got lost in the mail.

Leonard Grant, a window clerk at a North Milwaukee post office.
Leonard Grant, a window clerk at a North Milwaukee post office. (Sara Stathas For The Boston Globe)

“They failed voters spectacularly in my county in the primary and I have every reason to believe they will again,” Lehman said.

There are few people to whom those problems are more plain and disturbing than the postal workers themselves. They know they play an important role in the election but feel hampered by management.

“The trust is eroding,” said Leonard Grant, a window clerk at a North Milwaukee post office. “The probability of a ballot arriving late is almost undoubtable.”

That’s why the pressure was on for Woodall-Vogg to track down new drop boxes. After she learned the gray ones were back ordered, she worked with a local company to get some shipped directly to the city, and they were installed earlier this month.

“It’s really important to me … that we do everything within our power to educate voters and simplify the process so that they don’t feel like voting is the confusing and cumbersome process it has become,” she said.

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Armies of lawyers are locked in battles around the country. It’s just a taste of what could happen post-election

With black robes draped around their shoulders and sober expressions planted on their faces, the nine justices of Texas’ Supreme Court had to decide whether to make it harder or easier to vote.

The Lone Star State chose harder.

Texas’ conservative solicitor general, Kyle Hawkins, had argued passionately in May that voters who are afraid of contracting coronavirus at the polls in November should not be allowed to use a mail-in ballot instead. Texas’ lawmakers had declined to join the more than 30 states that allow all voters to request mail-in ballots, and the groups filing the suit “have to accept that policy choice,” Hawkins said.

When the opposing counsel, Scott Brister, attempted to sway the court, arguing that vulnerable voters may stay home rather than risk contracting the disease, he appeared to make little headway. “Doesn’t the lack of immunity also apply to your everyday average flu?” asked one justice.

It was not lost on many who followed the proceedings that the nine Republican justices, and both lawyers, were not facing off in a courtroom but were communicating via video, each of their heads in a separate square on the screen as they weighed whether Texans would be able to enjoy a similar level of safety while voting in November.

They won’t, the court later ruled on a 9-0 vote.

And so it goes. The rules for November’s election are being drawn right now in courts just like this one, with Democrats and Republicans spending millions of dollars to battle over how people can vote in hundreds of lawsuits in almost every state in the nation. The fights are just a preview of the legal brawl that could break out after the election in states where the presidential race is close.

In many cases, Democrats are seeking to expand access to mail-in ballots and to give people more time to return them. Republicans are opposing those efforts, pushing for ballots to be counted only if they’re received by Election Day and to uphold strict standards on signature matching and other verification procedures that would result in more mail-in ballots being thrown out on suspicion of fraud.

An election clerk placed signs outside of a polling place in Austin, Tex.
An election clerk placed signs outside of a polling place in Austin, Texas, before polls opened on March 3. The Supreme Court said it would not require Texas to let all eligible voters vote by mail. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

“They just keep coming,” said Justin Levitt, a constitutional law scholar at Loyola Marymount University who has tracked 228 coronavirus-related election cases so far.

“There’s more litigation in 2020 than there’s been in prior cycles combined,” said Marc Elias, a veteran voting rights lawyer representing Democrats in dozens of elections cases. “The truth is we have never seen an election that has had as much litigation around the rules as we are seeing in 2020.”

The Republican National Committee says it’s committed $20 million to its legal war chest, while millions more have poured into conservative and liberal organizations involved in litigation.

The victor of this sprawling legal war so far is unclear. The US Supreme Court may ultimately step in and decide some of the issues definitively, but the justices have a limited window to do so. Most legal experts say courts tend to avoid stepping into disputes five weeks or fewer before an election, when absentee ballots begin to be mailed out and it’s “pencils down” for justices who do not want to appear to be interfering with the most vital process of our democracy.

Each case in dispute has the potential to profoundly affect voters and the chance their ballots will be counted.

“In the end, elections are decided by inches — not by feet or yards or miles,” Elias said. “Each one of these legal disputes that may seem like we’re fighting over 10,000 ballot applications here, 50,000 ballots that may or may not count there — in a closely divided election, these things matter.”

Elections administrator Jon Martin ran newly received ballots through a machine.
Elections administrator Jon Martin ran newly received ballots through a machine that opens them and stamps the date they were received at Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services in Minneapolis on July 29. Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services has sent out over 85,000 ballots at a rate of 2,500 per day. In 2016 they mailed a total of 3,000. Absentee ballots are being requested at a record level this year. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)

One of the attorneys on the Texas case, Luis Roberto Vera, said he believes limiting mail-in options there will benefit Republicans on Election Day, especially if there are long lines at polling places, which tend to disproportionately affect minority voters.

“Those people are in lines for hours and hours and hours,” Vera said. “If you have small children, if you have elderly parents, are you going to go stand in that line and risk something that may not hurt you but could kill the most precious people in your life?”

Another phase of the legal war begins on Election Day itself — one that will likely be even fiercer and more frantic than the battles thus far. Justin Riemer, the chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, expects a “dash to the courthouse” from Democrats seeking to extend hours for polling places with long lines and to push deadlines on counting mail-in ballots that are received later.

The RNC will be ready to counter. “We feel like the deadline is the deadline,” Riemer said. “Our push is for ballots to be returned and counted as close to Election Day as possible.”

With many more Americans voting by mail than ever before, and a patchwork of still evolving rules about which ballots can be counted, the country may find itself experiencing multiple recounts at once, all heavily litigated, if the race is close.

Joseph Sandler, a Democratic lawyer who represented the party during the 2000 recount in Florida, said he sees a “recipe for litigation” if local Republican officials begin disqualifying a lot of mail-in ballots in a close race. Similarly, Republicans would likely sue to stop Democratic officials from counting ballots that arrived after Election Day or were missing postmarks or other information.

The result could be a bonanza of Bush v. Gores, all around the country.

“There’s no precedent for this,” Sandler said.

Russians flooded Americans with disinformation in 2016. They’re back in 2020, but the disinformation now often comes from the White House

The warning came from a Department of Homeland Security agent in August 2016, as the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump heated up. Hackers had obtained the personal information of some 200,000 voters in Illinois and unsuccessfully tried to do the same in Arizona. Now investigators were picking up chatter that foreign adversaries sought to target the state with the largest and most diverse trove of voters: California.

Alex Padilla, 47, California’s secretary of state, was not entirely surprised when he received the call. He and other election officials had been put on alert a month earlier after nefarious actors with possible Russian ties had leaked a cache of e-mails from the Clinton campaign. But Padilla could not predict then that his state would spend the next four years sparring not only with the Kremlin, but the White House.

Over his five years in the job, Padilla, a Democrat, has sought to expand the ways Californians can register and vote. He has worked to tighten his agency’s cybersecurity systems and to encourage trust in the voting process by combating election disinformation. But like other secretaries of state, Padilla is getting little help from Washington to protect his state’s systems from hacking attempts and disinformation campaigns — foreign and domestic — that could wreak havoc on the presidential election.

“We can do everything we need to do to secure the integrity of election infrastructure, but we need to equally be concerned about public confidence in elections, in the process, and the results,” he said.

Senate Republicans have largely blocked measures to boost election security money for states, and Trump has rejected warnings of Russian meddling in US elections.

Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state.
Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state. (Elizabeth Lippman For The Boston Globe)

At virtual cybersecurity conferences in August, where the US election was an intense topic even among experts tuned in from around the world, Matt Blaze, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, said there is no easy technical solution to the Election Day threats. The conditions required to make a system safe and reliable — secrecy and transparency — are often at odds with each other. Improving one, degrades the other.

Above it all looms a simple fact. “The people who are spending money to influence how you vote have a lot more resources than the people who are trying to ensure that everything runs smoothly,” Blaze said.

After the DHS call in 2016, Padilla stayed in touch with federal agents and began to share election security data with counterparts in Georgia and Connecticut. Even then, he recalled, he was growing increasingly concerned about Trump, who had been making incendiary claims to supporters that rampant voter fraud was the only thing that could deny him victory.

The first direct confrontation between Trump and Padilla took place just after Election Day 2016. On Thanksgiving, the president-elect fired off tweets falsely alleging that millions had illegally voted in California. “It appears that Mr. Trump is troubled by the fact that a growing majority of Americans did not vote for him,” Padilla shot back.

Trump lost the state by more than 4 million votes.

The skirmishes continued as federal indictments against 13 Russian agents, a report by former special counsel Robert Mueller, and congressional investigations uncovered the sweeping involvement of Russian online operatives in the 2016 election. Officials now know that links existed between Trump campaign officials and Moscow; that Russian agents attempted to breach the systems of several states; and that a Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, infiltrated left and far right groups, creating thousands of fake accounts and a stream of content that exploited divisions in American society to sow electoral confusion and discord.

Robert Mueller.
Robert Mueller and congressional investigations uncovered the sweeping involvement of Russian online operatives in the 2016 election. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

In California, Padilla learned in September 2017 that Russian actors had “scanned” his systems to spot weaknesses. Padilla said officials have found “no sign or evidence or indicator that there was a hack or breach of any kind.” But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to strengthen his systems: In 2018, his office received more than $130 million in state funds to upgrade firewalls and help county elections offices replace voting machines and other equipment.

The state for the first time also earmarked an additional $3 million to create the Office of Election Cybersecurity to report activity to national security officials and social media companies, as well as track online disinformation. It was among the first efforts of its kind, and only a few other states have followed suit.

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, the new office successfully demanded that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter remove some 300 pieces of content, including posts with erroneous polling locations and fake memes featuring the actor Aziz Ansari encouraging Democrats to tweet in their votes from home. But the office relied on only a handful of staffers to scan the vastness of the web.

As Election Day approaches, the online disinformation campaigns have become more widespread. Domestic operatives — Democratic and Republican, white supremacists and amateur anarchists — have adopted the Russian methods. State-sponsored actors from Iran, China, and other countries are likely to join the fray as the pandemic has created ideal conditions to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories. Although social media companies are now quicker to take down posts and kick off malicious users, criticism continues that they aren’t doing more to stop the propagation of rumors and lies, with Trump and a right-wing media ecosystem further complicating the landscape by amplifying some misinformation.

National security operatives have told Padilla to remain vigilant, and just this month, Facebook took down fake accounts and pages by Russian operatives who tried to enlist US journalists to write articles critical of Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris.

Now Padilla is only asking voters for two things: Trust and patience.

“We’re setting expectations, informing the press, and informing the people that if it takes a few more days to finish counting ballots, it’s for good reason,” he said. “It’s the process at work, and it’s because we want to make sure we get it right.”

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The rush to expand options for those who can’t vote in person has left behind some glaring gaps

Mary Bertin lives in Boston now. But she can still vividly remember watching the Freedom riders step off their bus into an unruly mob in her hometown of Anniston, Ala., in 1961. And she was in church with her parents and grandparents the day they all learned how to register to vote and fill out the ballot after years of disenfranchisement.

“For people like me, voting is an intricate part of who I am,” said Bertin, 74, who is Black and has voted in every presidential election since she was 18. “It is more than just a right, it is a debt of gratitude to all of those people who literally gave their lives, were beaten up, were thrown in jail.”

The pandemic has erected a unique hurdle to exercising that right this year: fear of exposure to the virus at polling places, a fear which Bertin feels powerfully.

A diabetic and cancer survivor, she does not want to risk voting in person.

The solution is ramping up mail-in voting. And even in a deep blue state like Massachusetts, achieving that goal has come hard.

Mary Bertin.
“For people like me, voting is an intricate part of who I am,” said Mary Bertin of Boston. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Governor Charlie Baker signed a law in July allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail this year without having to provide a reason. All 4.5 million registered voters were supposed to receive a mail-in ballot application. But Secretary of State William Galvin took so long to send out the forms for the Sept. 1 primary that Bertin and eight other Black, Latino, Asian, and elderly plaintiffs, along with voter outreach groups Common Cause and MassVOTE, petitioned a judge to urge Galvin to follow the law. Their concerns only grew as the US Postal Service warned state officials that mail-in ballots could arrive late and go uncounted.

“I hit the panic button,” said Bertin.

Now, as Nov. 3 approaches, it’s not just logistics that voting rights activists worry could cost people their opportunity to vote in Massachusetts and nationwide. Weary parents juggling work and homeschooling or struggling to provide for their families after the economic collapse might not pay attention to the details about how to request a ballot or when to send it in. In some Native American reservations, the option to vote by mail is not a tidy solution, as many people don’t have traditional mailing addresses or Internet access to check the status of the forms.

For some indigenous populations and immigrants whose primary language is not English, the barriers are greater still. Ballots — as well as information about how to obtain, fill out, and turn them in — must be translated, and counties often don’t have the resources to do that. The problems are especially acute for Asian American voters, the fastest-growing voter bloc in the United States, the majority of whom were born in other countries.

“In the best of times, there are barriers to participation,” said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “But without a full commitment by the federal government to tackle those impediments, it makes it even harder.”

In Massachusetts, Asian American activists spent years trying to secure bilingual ballots in a variety of languages, including Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Over her 11 years working on the issue in Boston’s Chinatown, Jian Hua Tang, 70, with Chinese Progressive Political Action, sat through “endless meetings, endless lobbying at City Hall, when it rained, when it shined, when it snowed.”

Some voters have already reported trouble. The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell sent a letter to Galvin requesting new information in Khmer about mail-in ballot applications after the initial batches were almost completely in English and Spanish, with only a paragraph in the Cambodian language telling voters where to call for a ballot. The text was garbled in places, making it nearly impossible to read.

Van Ma (right) and  Sophia Keang (left) are from the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.
Van Ma (right) and Sophia Keang (left), from the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, knocked on doors and distributed fliers on how to vote by mail. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

On a rainy September day, Vanmey Ma, 22, the civic engagement and organizing coordinator with the Cambodian assistance association, and two interns carried orange canvas bags stuffed with envelopes of mail-in voting and US Census information through a Lowell neighborhood. After the pandemic disrupted her college graduation and career plans, she returned to the city where she was born and raised and is helping to get out the vote.

“While we are moving forward and building a new home in the US, we also want to bridge the gap between the first generation and the newest generation,” she said of educating voters.

Some days are rough. People don’t answer the phone and those who do aren’t interested. Increasing hostility toward immigration under the Trump administration has led some new citizens to refuse to fill out their ballots out of fear. And among older Cambodian Americans, who arrived in the United States as refugees and distrust government, there is still much stigma and suspicion around voting.

But Ma said there are also reasons to hope. She and others point excitedly to the massive turnout during the primary: With more than 1.7 million ballots cast, the September primary had the highest turnout in 30 years, largely because so many people voted by mail.

In her cozy condo in downtown Boston, where tomes of Black literature fill the shelves, Bertin said the numbers showed that Massachusetts should allow expanded voting by mail during every election, not just in the middle of a pandemic.

“I hope they keep it,” she said. “People should have the choice.”

Election Day might not be the end of the challenges – just the beginning

It is Nov. 3 and the polls have closed. But the election, in this dark envisioning, is far from over.

Across the country, populous states like California, Pennsylvania, and Arizona are still tallying votes and the margins are thin. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is in her office, trying to keep the wheels on American democracy.

None of the official counts in her state’s 15 counties are finalized yet — a process that can take days, not just one night. Hobbs knows that the candidate who has the lead in those first hours could lose it as votes from dense, liberal-leaning areas are slowly tallied. None of this is evidence of fraud, which is exceedingly rare.

But as he watches the “blue shift” in action, President Trump begins tweeting that Hobbs and other state officials are trying to “steal” the election, inflaming his supporters and upping the pressure on her as officials keep steadily counting.

“I think we’ve seen enough from the president that he’s going to try to hold onto power no matter what,” said Hobbs, a Democrat.

Even if the worst-case scenarios feared by experts are avoided this Election Day, there is one looming disaster that has announced itself loud and clear already: a sitting president who has suggested he won’t concede, no matter the result, and has a long track record of crying foul — even after the election he won, in 2016.

The narrower the vote margins, the more fraught and chaotic things could be. A few hundred ballots missing a postmark in Pennsylvania could trigger wild conspiracy theories. A recount in Michigan could lead to armed protests there.

“Every election security risk that we’re facing right now is about undermining the confidence in the system and disrupting our democracy,” Hobbs said.

The days stretch on. The lawsuits rev up. Officials count, and count again. Both sides envision the worst: Joe Biden and the Democrats seethe at the possibility of losing — again — with a popular vote victory failing to yield an Electoral College majority. Republicans insist that the election is theirs.

It’s uncharted territory. And it will fall to Hobbs and other public servants to carry the nation through to a conclusion, grounded in the truth. After millions of ballots are checked, counted, and preserved, she will end up with what matters most: a certified election result she can stand behind.

It’s left to be seen whether Americans, divided, will stand with people like her.

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