Along with the candidates and the issues, the 2020 presidential election is also going to be about the voting process itself.
Russian efforts to hack into the voting systems of 2016 have boosted election security to a critical concern this time, prompting states to spend tens of millions buying new equipment, hiring cybersecurity wizards and installing software that warns of intrusions — among numerous other steps. More purchases of hardware, software and expertise are coming in the months ahead.
Whether enough money gets spent, and wisely, won't be known for sure until Nov. 3, 2020 — when the system will be subject to the one test that really matters. And whether the country decides the presidential election result is trustworthy will likely come down to how reliably things work in the relatively small number of states both nominees are contesting.
With 11 months to go, The Fulcrum reviewed information from state elections officials, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Election Assistance Commission and news reports to get a sense of the election security landscape. Here's the state of play in the 13 states likeliest to be presidential battlegrounds.
Michigan has become the latest battleground over state laws that allow local election officials to discard mail-in ballots when signatures aren't similar enough to the handwriting on file.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court by Priorities USA, a liberal super PAC, claims "the state's arbitrary and standardless signature-matching laws" have disenfranchised "hundreds of voters in recent elections for no other reason than an election official's subjective and arbitrary determination that a voter's signature on an absentee ballot (or ballot application) did not match a prior signature that the voter provided to election officials."
Michigan has the potential to produce several pivotal contests next fall, underscoring the truism that every vote will count. President Trump won the state by fewer than 11,000 votes last time, the first Republican to carry it in seven elections. Democratic Sen. Gary Peters faces a stiff challenge and so do a pair of House members from each party.
A law compelling Iowans to present a valid ID before voting, and another requiring a voter identification number on every absentee ballot request, have survived a court challenge.
But the same state judge who upheld those measures this week, Joseph Seidlin, also struck down two other provisions of a package enacted in 2017 in the name of combatting election fraud. One would have barred the use of an Iowa driver's license or state identification card to get a voter ID. The other would have allowed local election officials to block a voter if they believed in-person and on-file signatures didn't match.
The lawsuit was brought by the Hispanic civil rights group LULAC and an Iowa State University student and financed by the Democratic campaign group Priorities USA, who said all four provisions would suppress turnout and disenfranchise people — especially Latinos, who vote absentee in big numbers in a politically purple state that will have six hotly contested electoral votes next year.
"The evidence presented simply did not demonstrate that the burden on young voters, old voters, female voters, minority voters, poor voters and voters who are Democrats to show an approved form of identification at the polls is appreciably greater than the rest of the population," the judge said.
The prospects for ranked-choice voting are uncertain in a handful of states that had shown momentum as the fall begins and the 2020 campaign shifts into a more intense gear.
Just days ago, the future looked brighter for one of the more revolutionary parts of the democracy reform agenda, which seeks in part to grow consensus-building and shrink polarization in politics: holding elections where voters list all the candidates they can live with in order of preference, with the winner often emerging as a person ranked close to the top on the most number of ballots.
The biggest potential setback since has come in Iowa, where Democrats hoped to couple a debut for ranked-choice voting in presidential elections with the rollout of online participation in the 2020 caucuses.
But last week national party leaders rejected the proposals from Iowa and Nevada to allow remote participation, concluding that concerns the fledgling systems could be hacked outweighed the desire to make it easier for people to participate.