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Epistemic status: Look, I’m just spitballin’ here…

I’m neither an American citizen nor resident. But I have been obsessively mainlining policy discussions and analysis for the last three and a half years.

[Note on my process: I started writing this post around the beginning of August and I shelved it the day the official EA Forum policy on politics dropped. Then a couple of days ago Rob Wiblin posted on FB about the election, which was enough of a nudge to get me to finally publish. At least some of what's written here seemed fresh and obscure before Taylor Swift and Michelle Obama started talking about the USPS.]

The American Electoral System: highly decentralized & poorly equipped for mass mailed in ballots

To quote the US National Conference of State Legislatures:

The U.S. is characterized by a highly decentralized election administration system. The entities that do the rubber-meets-the-road functions of running an election are typically on the county or city/town level. The state is responsible for certain aspects of elections as well, and the federal government has a role, too. The result is that no state administers elections in exactly the same way as another state, and there is quite a bit of variation in election administration even within states. Each state’s election administration structure and procedures grew organically, as times changed and administering an election became an increasingly complex task.

State and local elections are administered at county/city level by an chief election official or commission. Twenty-four states have single individuals in charge of running elections.

Particularly if you are in one of the handful of battleground states, finding the people who administer your local elections and ensuring that they carry out their jobs correctly and without bias may be high impact. There is ample evidence that for years the republican party has pursued a strategy of voter suppression, and this year there is emerging evidence that republicans are trying to delegitimize vote-by-mail. While historically Democrats and Republicans have both tended to vote by mail at similar rates, there has been recent polling that suggests that Democrats are more likely to vote by mail in the coming election, possibly because they tend to be more worried about the coronavirus.

There's also an emerging portrait in several different media outlets (as well as Trump’s own utterances) that suggest a strategy of delegitimizing vote-by-mail + gumming the works at USPS. Fully counting mail in ballots will likely take days if not weeks. If Trump is in the lead on election night, he may try to declare victory and claim not-yet-counted ballots are fraudulent. This maneuver could be supported by republican houses of state that may be eager to jump the gun and assign their electors to Trump.

Mark Joseph Stern has sketched this scenario out in more detail:

...If the in-person vote is disproportionately Republican, then Election Day returns could show Trump ahead in the key swing states. At that point, he can declare victory and proclaim the uncounted ballots are fraudulent. He has previewed this tactic for months now and openly cast doubt on the legitimacy of mailed ballots.
... the Constitution grants state legislatures the power to appoint electors. The legislatures of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are all controlled by Republicans. These bodies could quickly pass resolutions declaring Trump the victor, then appoint electors who will cast their votes for him. This gambit has never been tested in court, but it is possible to imagine the Supreme Court’s conservatives permitting it as a valid exercise of state legislatures’ constitutional authority.

Even before recent moves by the administration that appear designed to hobble the USPS, vote by mail has been fraught for many states. For example, many state primaries took much longer than anticipated because of historically high numbers of mail in ballots due to covid.

Nils Gilman has written an account of an alarming war-gaming of the upcoming election. The war-gaming suggests that a long period of uncertainty about the outcome of the election is likely, and that this would provide a window during which Trump may be able to abuse the power of the executive to steal the election. Even in scenarios where the Trump administration wasn't able to remain in power, the constitutional crisis was significantly damaging to American civil society and caused a great deal of chaos. Gilman’s write up of the war-gamed election is highly recommended.

What to do

Help improve/validate/critique this list. Again, to reiterate: I’m neither a domain expert nor an American resident.

These are my best guesses as to potentially high-impact actions that may be marginally neglected. The situation is evolving rapidly -- when I began writing this piece, the concerns about political inference with the USPS hadn’t even emerged -- now they’re on cnn.com’s front page, and Taylor Swift’s been tweeting, and Michelle Obama told folks to vote in person at the DNC. Perhaps there really isn’t anything even marginally neglected here, in which case let us not misallocate resources. Perhaps there are worthwhile things that are marginally neglected, but I haven’t listed them.

Local election oversight

Oversight of the state representatives: how are swing state electors chosen? In the event of a chaotic and prolonged ballot counting can the representative in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin be brought under intense enough scrutiny to prevent them from acting before all the ballots have been counted?

Media + political strategies

  • Rapidly educating the public about these possibilities seems extremely important. Gilman’s account of the war gaming suggests that it will be important for the public to understand this is an unusual election which may take longer to resolve than normal.
  • There may be a need for mass political protests in November and possibly onwards. Gilman writes, “any electoral contestation will not just be a legal fight, but rather will be an integrated campaign of information warfare and sustained political mobilization in the streets. The scenarios we ran suggested that in a contested situation, the battle to win “the narrative” about who won the election is likely to be the decisive factor in who ultimately prevails.”
  • At the same time, coordinated legal and political strategies to ensure the integrity of the election will be crucial too. Again, to quote Gilman, “Governors, Secretaries of State and Attorneys General need to develop plans for transparency in the vote counting process, to ensure not only that the vote count is accurate, but just as important that the public has confidence in the count. State officials who refuse to take such measures should be named and shamed as seeking to undermine election integrity for partisan purposes.”

Organizing to bring political pressure onto these figures may be high impact.

Also, really, you should just read the Gilman piece..

(Early) voting education

  • Educating voters in critical areas on how to fill out the LOCAL ballot correctly -- ballot designs vary by region and some of them can be confusing, particularly for people who may not be native english speakers. Creating or disseminating clear instructions on how to correctly request, fill out and deliver the specific mail-in ballot people will be receiving in a swing county or state may be high impact.
  • Likewise, educating voters on the timelines for getting mail in ballots out the door, given that mail delivery is expected to be particularly slow.
  • Educating voters about alternatives to mail-in ballots, such as ballot drop-off boxes, and ways to vote in person, as well as ways to volunteer at a polling place, monitor a local election, and monitor a vote count.


Fivethirtyeight currently has Biden at 70% to win. Unfortunately, Trump still enjoys an unsettling electoral college advantage. As discussed in a recent episode of Fivethirtyeight's politics podcast, if on election day Biden was leading by only 1 - 3% percentage points in the national polls, he would almost certainly lose. Even if Biden maintains his 7% national edge on election day, that translates into only a ~90% chance of victory for him. Now is absolutely not a time to be complacent about the election.





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