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What Could Go Wrong On Election Day 2020?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Remember back in February, when the Iowa caucuses got so messed up that the state couldn't declare a winner, or in April, when the night before the Wisconsin primary, voters still didn't know whether polls would be open? How about four years ago, when Russia targeted voting systems in all 50 states? Well, imagine all of those and more converging in November, when Americans go to choose a president. That is the scenario Garrett Graff lays out in his cover story for Politico Magazine, and he joins us now.

Hi, Garrett.

GARRETT GRAFF: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: So you begin this article by saying that the perfect storm metaphor is often misused. Explain why the phrase might actually be appropriate to describe November.

GRAFF: Yeah. Most people use the perfect storm metaphor to explain something that catches them by surprise. But if you go back to the Sebastian Junger novel "The Perfect Storm," it's actually described something that is entirely foreseeable. The Atlantic gale that that book covers was well-forecast and the warnings were just ignored. And I fear that's the situation where we are finding ourselves over these next 97 days, that we have a lot of reason to be concerned about this election and so far seem to be ignoring it.

SHAPIRO: You lay out eight distinct but connected challenges in this article. And we're not going to go through all of them here, but many are connected to the pandemic. How big of a wildcard is COVID-19 in this election?

GRAFF: The COVID-19 pandemic, under the best of circumstances this fall, is going to influence every aspect of this election. We're going to see elderly poll workers unable to actually man the polls. We're going to see college students not in the places where they are normally supposed to be in November, and we're going to see the Postal Service challenged by its own response to the pandemic even before it begins to handle the wave of millions or perhaps tens of millions of additional absentee and mail-in ballots caused by the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the spike in absentee and mail-in voting that we expect to see. President Trump and the attorney general have both said inaccurately that vote by mail brings massive fraud. Even though there's no evidence of that, it is true that processing mail-in ballots is a huge operation that most counties don't have much experience with. So how worried are you about that?

GRAFF: There's a lot of reason to be worried about just the basic administration of the election. It adds all sorts of new costs. It adds new staffing challenges, and it even changes the possibility of when we might know the victor. I mean, think about how many states across the country your absentee ballot just has to be postmarked by Election Day, which means that states are going to have ballots trickling in Thursday, Friday, even Saturday of election week. And so it's entirely possible that there are states that are up for grabs for a week or two after the election.

SHAPIRO: And then there are challenges that have nothing to do with a pandemic, like foreign interference. Is the U.S. any more equipped to deal with that today than we were four years ago?

GRAFF: On one level, we are more equipped insofar as the Department of Homeland Security is paying much closer attention. The FBI is paying much closer attention. Election officials are paying much closer attention.

But at the same time, all number of adversaries and bad actors saw how successful that attack was in 2016. And so you have a situation this year where you're not just worried about foreign adversaries. We're also worried about domestic adversaries spreading disinformation or misinformation related to the election.

This also comes back to the pandemic. So many polling places are going to be changed. So many people are going to be looking for information on how to vote, and that's an opportunity that is ripe for the spread of misinformation.

SHAPIRO: We're just over three months out from the election now. Is it too late to address some of these challenges?

GRAFF: Some of it is going to be baked into the process simply because of the complexity of the pandemic. But the most important thing that Americans can do across the country for the integrity of this fall election is to vote as early as possible. Remember; the Postal Service is saying it might take as long as 14 days roundtrip for an absentee ballot to work its way through the system. Particularly if you are living in a state that requires the absentee ballot to arrive by Election Day, you are looking at the fall election deadline basically being the middle of October not early November.

SHAPIRO: Garrett Graff - his piece in Politico Magazine is titled "8 Big Reasons Election Day 2020 Could Be A Disaster."

Thank you so much.

GRAFF: Always a pleasure, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And tomorrow, we will talk with an expert who gamed out what might happen if the election does not produce a clear winner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.