In a campaign year marked by a global pandemic, a recession and a national wave of protests, it’s easy to forget that this whole election season began with an absolute debacle when it came to the simple act of voting.
The mobile app used for the Democratic caucuses in Iowa collapsed so badly that the country was left unsure—forever, as it turns out—who won. In March, malfunctioning voting technology in California led to hourslong delays; in April, the pandemic left Wisconsin voters unsure the night before whether the polls would even open. By May, unable to guarantee the safety of physical voting, 16 states had delayed their primaries or switched to vote-by-mail options. Then came Georgia’s primary in June, where massive confusion and long lines led to what observers called a “meltdown.” Some people waited in line to cast their ballots until 1 a.m.
Every month of this year has brought new evidence that voting in 2020 hasn’t been going very well. And with perhaps the most consequential election in generations—when the nation ratifies or rejects President Donald Trump’s divisive agenda—experts are starting to believe that the general election will be much, much worse.
People often deploy the “perfect storm” metaphor incorrectly, using it to describe a surprise collision of events that catches its victims off guard.
Anxious Democrats are already fretting about nightmare scenarios in which Trump uses emergency powers to cancel the election, calls in the military to “oversee” voting, or even refuses to vacate the White House. But conversations with more than a dozen campaign strategists, security officials and election administrators make clear that the most likely picture this fall is something less theatrical, and every bit as destabilizing. November 3, even if it proceeds as scheduled, is likely to bring bureaucratic snafus and foreseeable chaos unfolding on a hundred different fronts at once, in a thousand voting precincts—all of which will leave the U.S. with its most uncertain, disputed result in a lifetime.
People often deploy the “perfect storm” metaphor incorrectly, using it to describe a surprise collision of events that catches its victims off guard. But that’s not how perfect storms really work: In Sebastian Junger’s book about a deadly Atlantic Ocean gale that popularized the term, the storm was a well-foreseen event, with serious warnings, that people saw coming and chose instead to ignore—until it was too late, and the waves overwhelmed them. That’s how this election is starting to look to experts.
What’s likely to go wrong, and is there any way to head it off?
Conversations with election specialists and security officials, plus analysis of recent government reports, make clear that there are eight distinct but connected challenges. At the technical end are the uncertain new voting technologies and processes put in place for the pandemic; on the geopolitical end, we face foreign adversaries energized by their success sowing confusion in 2016. And at the center is the unprecedented human factor: The dislocations and risks associated with voting in an uncontrolled viral outbreak.
“My biggest concern for the fall election is an election administrator’s job is to convince the losers that they lost.”
Add to that a year that has already seen unprecedented street protests and vivid displays of political violence, and an incumbent president who has already been impeached for attempting dirty tricks in this election, and who is uniquely likely to cast doubt on the results if he loses, and you have a combustible recipe.
A handful of public officials have been trying to sound the alarm, such as Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has made an issue of election security and recently warned that the country could be headed toward “an electoral Chernobyl.”
Many of the election experts interviewed for this story asked to speak anonymously to voice candid fears they didn’t want to be associated with their employers. Some have been more forthcoming about how hard it will be for the nation to agree on what happens next.
“My biggest concern for the fall election is an election administrator’s job is to convince the losers that they lost,” Washington’s Republican secretary of state, Kim Wyman, told me this spring during an event at the Aspen Institute, where I head its cybersecurity initiatives. “I guarantee you that half of the country cannot conceive that Republicans can win in November. The other half of the country cannot conceive that Democrats can win.”
All of the following are utterly foreseeable. And keep in mind, none of these weigh the X factor of a truly unexpected event—who, after all, had the 2016 election hinging on Anthony Weiner’s laptop?