On the 19th anniversary of 9/11, I stumbled upon Jeff Greenfield’s masterpiece 43. He recounts the events of that fateful day in 2001 in this way, “at 5 p.m. on September 11, 2001, an ashen-faced but composed President Al Gore stepped into the East Room of the White House to deliver a televised address to the nation. With him were former presidents Clinton and Bush, as well as Texas governor George W. Bush — flown to Washington from Dallas on a military jet, his first visit back to the capital after the close race that lost him the presidency just months before. That's not how you remember it?”
Greenfield’s 43 revisits an alternate history of what if a President Gore, instead of a President Bush, had taken the Oval Office. Would 9/11 have taken place, the way it did? If not, ergo no protracted wars in Afghanistan, no invasion of Iraq, and, perhaps, no economic quagmire in 2008/09? In a nutshell, a brilliant work of fiction in real world politics.
The reason that we had a President Bush, and not a President Gore, came down to one state: Florida, one system: the Electoral College, one debacle: hanging chads (incorrectly stamped voting ballots). The Supreme Court weighed in and Gore weighed out of national politics.
It’s brazen to make a political punt on the outlook of the 2020 elections, given the unprecedented nature of the 2016 elections. However, there is a political maelstrom brewing around mail-in-ballots, and that could complicate matters as hanging chads did two decades ago.
It’s hard to think of an election that wasn’t very contentious or didn’t have issues riding at stake. However, this election has another conundrum — COVID-19. As a tiny microbe wreaks havoc around the globe, and as events get cancelled or go virtual, such as even the Republican and Democrat conventions, it’s hard to entertain the thought of cancelling or postponing the most significant election in the geopolitical landscape.
As the death count in the United States escalates, the dichotomy brews between a call for civic duty, while maintaining adequate social distancing guidelines.
Enter mail-in-ballots. The process of voting through mail-in-ballots has existed for a while and under the circumstances, voters in every state can request a mail-in-ballot, as long as they’re registered to vote in that state, and, of course, is a citizen.
Mail-in ballots have existed since the US Civil War and some states such as Utah have relied on it for a while. This process has existed in the past, in a pre-pandemic world as absentee ballots. US President Donald Trump has made acerbic remarks on the process of mail-in-voting (alluding to fraud votes being cast), but ironically endorsed it in some ways, by casting his mail-in-vote from Florida in August.
In lieu of in-person voting means that the elections have come early as almost every state has a mail-in ballot application deadline in October.
States such as North Carolina have already kicked-off the process by sending hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots to voters. Along with North Carolina, 24 other states (half of the US to be precise) have allowed anyone registered to vote, to request for mail-in-ballot for any reason whatsoever.
However, seven additional states, from the solid red state of Texas and the flamingly liberal New York are among the two of the seven that have stricter rules. Some of the prerequisites include, being over the age of 65, unavailable on voting day and submitting adequate proof of being ill in order to be eligible for mail-in-voting. Unfortunately concerns about the pandemic do not make the criteria. The other five states are the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and Midwest Indiana.
Nine other states have been pre-emptively mailing applications for ballots. These are mostly West Coast and Southwest states of California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Jersey and Vermont.
In a federal polity, there is also a sense of state inconsistencies, with some states wanting ballots to be postmarked by ‘election day’, whereas others want it to be received by election day.
Trump’s remarks aside, there are genuine concerns on the efficacy of the postal service, given the slow service, delivery delays and voter procrastination that could lead to inadvertent delays on election night, with several votes left to be counted, and an encore of the 2000 elections, where the eventual winner isn’t revealed until much later, making this a November saga. Some states could be too close to call, some states still in counting, and the Electoral College outcome hangs in the balance.
Of course, if Trump’s comments on mail-in-voting serve as a harbinger, the likelihood of him accepting the results at face value seem unlikely as Trump and his supporters have sought to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the mail-in-voting.
The United States Postal Service says it can handle the election surge and is up for the task and can deliver the results effectively. However, there is a reason why the phrase ‘lost in the mail’ has been codified across all countries.
Akshobh Giridharadas is a Washington DC-based former journalist. Views are personal.