WASHINGTON - The U.S. presidential political cycle is nearing its crescendo with some voters already casting their ballots by mail or going to early voting centers ahead of the November 3 election.
And just as the main presidential campaigns for Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, are making their final push for support, election security officials are increasingly sounding an alarm – that this election day will be unlike any other in recent history.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some experts predict as many as 80 million people in the U.S. will have voted by mail for the November election, compared to about 33 million people (who voted by mail or voted absentee) in the last presidential election in 2016.
“Have a little bit of patience,” Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said during a discussion at the Billington CyberSecurity in September. “This is probably going to take a little bit longer to do the counting.”
The warning from Krebs is being echoed by other officials at the national, state and local levels who are urging U.S. voters and the media to adjust their expectations.
“The reality is it's not about election day anymore. It's about [an] election time period,” a senior official with the Department of Homeland Security said in August, while briefing reporters.
President Trump, though, has not voiced the same type of patience.
“I want to have the result of the election. I don't want to be waiting around for weeks and months,” Trump told reporters during a briefing this past July (30).
The president has also refused to say whether he will accept the results of the election if he loses.
"We want to make sure the election is honest and I'm not sure it can be," Trump told reporters before leaving the White House for a campaign trip last month (September 24).
It is not unusual for certified election results to take time. For example, Congress did not certify the results of Trump’s victory in the November 2016 presidential election until January 6, 2017.
Still, based on the initial results, Trump declared victory and Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, formally conceded before most Americans woke up the day after the election.
But if the predictions of current election officials play out, and election officials are still counting ballots on November 4, it will be the first time since the 2000 presidential election that Americans will have to wait for some time before knowing who won. That year, President George W. Bush won after a lengthy legal process involving a recount in the state of Florida.
Adding to the potential for election result confusion is the likelihood that the results themselves, even once they are certified, will be challenged. State and local election officials are already preparing for potential lawsuits.
Data from the Federal Election Commission show both the Trump and Biden campaign are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers in preparation for the expected legal fight.
The expected wait for election results is just part of the story.
Here are five other reasons the November 3, 2020 election may be unlike any other in recent memory:
On March 13, with reports of more than 1,100 COVID-19 cases in 49 of the 50 U.S. states, President Trump declared a national emergency.
U.S. states, like Louisiana, responded by postponing primary elections, fearing the possible spread of COVID-19 at polling centers where social distancing would not be possible.
Other states, like New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, and others soon followed with delays of their own.
Despite states reopening to various degrees since then, many are still encouraging the use of mail-in ballots for the November presidential election to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, some U.S. states were embracing the idea of conducting elections via mail.
According the National Council of State Legislatures, five U.S states -- Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – already conducted “all-mail elections,” in which every registered voter is allowed to vote by mail.
But in response to the coronavirus pandemic, some of those states have decided to make voting by mail even easier. For example, California announced in May that it would send mail-in ballots to all registered voters for the November presidential election.
But this push to make mail in voting easier has drawn criticism from President Trump.
In June, Trump tweeted that the use of mail-in ballots will lead to, “the most RIGGED Election in our nations [sic] history - unless this stupidity is ended.”
“We are not aware of any evidence supporting the claims made by President Trump,” a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) told VOA in response. NASS members run the election in 40 U.S. states.
This past August, senior intelligence and law enforcement officials told reporters they have “no information or intelligence” to support claims the any foreign or domestic actors are working to use mail-in voting to impact the result of the upcoming election.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has been equally clear.
"We have not seen, to date, a coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election," Wray told lawmakers during a hearing on threats to the U.S. homeland on September 17, though he later admitted there have been incidents of voter fraud on a local level “from time to time.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have warned about Russian efforts to meddle in U.S. elections since before the November 2016 presidential election.
Since then, however, Trump has repeatedly dismissed reports and allegations that his presidential campaign got help from Russia as a “hoax.”
"After three years of lies, smears and slander the Russia hoax is finally dead," says @POTUS. "The collusion delusion is over."— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) March 28, 2019
But the warnings have kept coming.
In August, the top U.S. counterintelligence officials made a rare public statement, warning the Kremlin was at it, again.
“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” said National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina.
“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” he added.
FBI Director Christopher Wray shared similar conclusions while testifying before lawmakers in September.
“Russia continues to try to influence our elections, primarily thru what we would call malign foreign influence…primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment," Wray said, angering the president.
Other Election Meddling Threats
U.S. intelligence officials warned Russia’s efforts to meddle with the 2016 presidential election would inspire other countries to copy Moscow’s playbook.
Two years later, an assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that China and Iran, along with Russia, “conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns” in connection with the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.
In his August statement, NCSC Director William Evanina warned that like in 2018, both China and Iran are trying to put their mark on the election in the hope of seeing Trump lose.
“We assess that China prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection,” Evanina said.
Iran, Evanina said, is “driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”
Other countries may also be working to sway U.S. voters. Trump told reporters in August that North Kore and other countries may be looking to use the increased reliance on voting by mail to possibly “forge ballots and send them in.”
No matter how many countries may be engaged in election meddling against the U.S., election officials are taking the threat seriously, warning that adversaries may try to flood the U.S. with disinformation as the polls close on November 3 to help spark chaos and confusion.
There are also concerns that foreign countries and criminal enterprises will try to target U.S. election infrastructure.
"Election systems, like IT systems generally, are being scanned, are being targeted, are being researched for vulnerabilities," Matt Masterson, the Department of Homeland Security's senior election security adviser said during an online forum in September.
Despite such fears, election security officials remain confident that while it may take longer to tally votes, the results will be accurate.
"This will be the most secure election in modern history" per @CISAKrebs, repeating assurance he has given before in run up to #ElectionTwitter— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) September 8, 2020
Krebs also urges voters to have patience w/results - "Democracy wasn't made overnight" he says
The Postal Service
The heavy reliance on mail-in voting for the November 3 election has put an intense spotlight on the U.S. Postal Service, which has been criticized by Congressional Democrats for slowing down mail service as part of a series of cost-cutting measures.
Some Democratic lawmakers have also raised concerns about Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s ties to President Trump, noting DeJoy is a Republican fundraiser and donor to the Trump campaign.
DeJoy has rejected any improprieties, saying, "The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall.”
Still, at least 14 states have sued the U.S. Postal Service to block some of the changes that could slow the delivery of mail-in ballots.
In mid-September, a judge in the state of Washington granted a preliminary nationwide injunction against the changes, saying, “The states have demonstrated the defendants are involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service."
Separately, on September 21, a federal judge in New York ruled the Postal Service must expedite election mail and approve overtime for postal workers.
Brian Padden contributed to this report.