Q & A with an accountability expert

Aquene Freechild, co-director, Democracy Is For People Campaign, Public Citizen discusses the election.

Tell us about your role at Public Citizen and how this election has affected it?

I co-run Public Citizen’s democracy advocacy focused on getting money out of politics and ensuring that everyone’s vote counts. We worked to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates to corporate spending in elections. We led local, state, and federal campaigns to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling. After the Voting Rights Act was gutted, we added securing voting rights and later election security. We have expanded our mandate to address the gaps we have seen. We helped win $425 million for election security in 2019, which ended up being a lifesaver for election officials who urgently needed funding to respond to the COVID pandemic as well as to secure the vote.

We are less than two weeks away from an unusual election. What are you expecting on Nov. 3?

It is difficult to know what to expect. It will likely be smooth in some places and more problematic in other areas. It’s encouraging that so many people are voting early. There has been a problem of a slow voter database in Georgia making check-in for voters positively glacial. In Virginia, a severed cable due to roadside work knocked down the state’s Internet service causing confusion on the last day of voter registration. These are issues that can lead to longer lines that can suppress the vote. These states need to upgrade to efficient systems to ensure voters have access to the best technology so they can voice their preferences over who will govern them. Overall, the early voting data we are seeing so far has been encouraging. Out of 1.4 million mail ballots, Wisconsin has already reported over 800,000 received. I am concerned that COVID-19 cases are escalating. A record number of young people are volunteering to work the polls, but people are also pulling out because of the pandemic.

Do you think states have done all they can to expand opportunities to vote by mail and improve security?

No, they haven’t. Some of them have made it more difficult. The Texas Governor’s insane one election drop box per county order that’s still in court might mean voters who don’t want to mail their ballots will have to drive for hours and (or) wait in line for hours to drop off their ballot. In Missouri, you have to meet one of seven different criteria in order to vote absentee which makes what should be a simple process unnecessarily confusing. On the security side, in addition to patching their election systems to prevent hacks, states need to have a backup paper poll book in every polling location. These are things they can still do now.

To support transparency, they can live stream poll workers processing the ballots, since it’s easy to set up on YouTube. States and localities can also use Cloudflare’s complimentary service to protect election websites from going down because of distributed denial-of-service attacks. Many election offices and workers can still do more to implement standard two-factor authentication on all work and personal email and social media accounts so that it becomes harder to breach their offices through one careless or unlucky employee.

Americans have been dealing with this pandemic since March, do you think states will be able to maintain safe sites for voters and election workers this year?

Fortunately, this is one area most election officials feel confident.  Yes, there was a shortage of personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizers at the beginning of the pandemic, but with additional funding, states and localities are better prepared now to have PPE available to voters and poll workers.

There have been real concerns that voters in states hit hardest by the pandemic (AZ, FL, GA, NC, and SC, for example) will report less than optimal voter turnout. What’s your take on this?

In states like Florida and Arizona, where it’s common and easy to vote by mail, I think the biggest problem was registration – the difficulty of getting updated ID with limited DMV access, for example. Each state runs its elections so they will administer them differently, but Georgia in particular has been lacking in terms of leadership. The technical breakdowns there and voting systems that used up too much power caused outages that made it difficult to verify votes. There was also the scandal of Georgia leaving the voter database online. However, South Carolina had long lines during the primary election, but increased early voting this fall. I think they’ve worked hard to recruit more and younger poll workers. Collectively, I hope they can all do better this time around.            

How much of an influence do you think the Supreme Court will have in the outcome of the election, if the outcome is contested.

The election should be decided by the voters, so I hope the election is not contested in a manner that involves the Court. If it does, any court ruling(s) should prioritize counting the people’s votes instead of discounting voters’ choices. To protect our democracy, the court should prioritize this rather than technicalities.

Some mail-in ballots won’t be received until after Election Day. How will this affect what we know on Nov. 3 and how long would we have to wait to get a real idea who the winner is?

While there’s a good chance we won’t know the results on November 3rd, I lean towards thinking we’ll know the result within a couple days, but it does depend on how close key races are. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania may take a little longer because they don’t allow election officials to open the envelopes and stack the ballots for counting until Election Day. It is important for voters to submit their ballots early and by drop box when possible, so that election officials don’t have to wait on a large number of ballots that were postmarked on Election Day to arrive in the days following the election.  I don’t know if any delays because of election officials receiving and counting mail-in ballots will take more than a week.

What advocacy areas will Public Citizen focus on leading up to the election and after?

We will focus on protecting the results of the election and ensuring every vote is counted. Trump has made critical comments about mail-in ballots, so Public Citizen is advocating for every vote to be counted and mobilizing to make sure the people’s votes are protected by informing voters about their rights, resisting voter suppression, and curbing disinformation.

Early Voting has begun. But not all states have early voting options, which will put more pressure on their Election Day programs, so we will be doing all we can to ensure voters’ access to the polls is protected. We are part of the 866-OUR-VOTE election protection coalition and encourage folks to call or text that number if they have any problems with registration, early voting or on Election Day. After the election, we hope to be celebrating a clear result. But, if there are efforts to stop the counting of votes, or a candidate was to not accept the people’s choice, we will be ready to peacefully protest to protect our democracy.

Any parting thoughts to voters on the election?

It is encouraging to see so many people voting early to maximize their votes. The response has been overwhelming. Our country is fortunate to have a stable democracy that gives everyone a voice. I would like to remind voters that our democracy is on the ballot in this election. So is the stability of the country that is the basis for our prosperity. We need everyone to participate in the election for the prosperity of our country. There’s so much Americans take for granted that is at risk.