As the 2020 U.S. presidential election nears, Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation has launched a new event series, “Justice, Democracy, and the 2020 Elections,” to discuss major developments around the election and to focus on the democratic process itself, through the lens of conversations with leading scholars and practitioners.

In the first event of the series, held on Tuesday, panelists discussed what they see as the greatest threats to a successful U.S. election. Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy Miles Rapoport asked three experts on voting rights, election logistics, and grass roots advocacy to share what keeps them up at night.

Watch a recording of the event.


Read highlights below:

Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

Threats to voting rights fuel the entire legal team at the Legal Defense Fund every day. There is the transformative potential of the vote, particularly in this increasingly diverse electorate, on the one hand and then the array of attempts to extinguish that power on the other hand. And this is happening on a whole host of fronts from polling place closures to voter purges, to the disenfranchisement of people with criminal convictions, and threats to early voting. There's just an array of attempts to limit the power of the vote.

Janai Nelson.And then you have the overlay of the pandemic, which makes all that much more challenging and disconcerting. But perhaps the most concerning to me is that we have a Department of Justice that has effectively abandoned the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. We have someone in the White House who has threatened to send law enforcement to the polls, to intimidate voters, which is straight out of a partisan voter suppression playbook. And we basically have an entire administration that has turned a blind eye to election interference, both domestic and foreign.

And yet, I am extremely hopeful because of the legions of American people who are continuing to use the power of peaceful protest to bring a greater focus on inequities in our society, starting with racism and police violence, but not ending there. People who I hope will march all the way to the ballot box on November 3rd, to register their protest there as well. I probably could not say it better than the founder of theLegal Defense Fund, Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American justice. He said, “Where you see wrong, or inequality or injustice, speak out because this is your country, this is your democracy.  Protect it, pass it on.” We have an obligation to pass it on better than we found it. And that work really starts now.

“People are absolutely determined to vote. The combination of the changes that have been made to make it easier to vote will allow more Americans to have their voices heard. And that's what gives me hope.”

Miles Rapoport


Judd Choate, Director of Elections, Colorado Secretary of State’s Office

I'm concerned that the conversation nationally has exposed some pretty significant risks that make you feel like the whole concept of democracy is under threat. The central pillar of a working democracy is that people believe in the outcomes. And if you don't believe in the outcomes, once an election's over, people will fight the outcome and then you have the recipe for sort of a longstanding problem.

Judd Choate.I work in this area as an administrator, not as an advocate for one side or the other, so the lead-up to an election is about instituting new programs, making sure that people are doing it right, training, and facilitating the sort of structures of a safe election. Now we're in the blocking and tackling stage of the election where we just have to make sure that it is pulled off. We’re working on just the basics of making sure that Colorado's election goes off without a hitch at this point. And I know that my colleagues around the country are doing the same.

So while there is a whole bunch of noise out there and a whole bunch of things that we should really legitimately be concerned about, one of the things that you should feel really good about is that there are fantastic people running your elections, and they really believe in what they're doing. They believe you should have the chance to vote. By the way, that's not about Democrats and Republicans, that's across the board. There are people that really believe in this work. So that gives me great hope.


Karen Hobert Flynn, National President, Common Cause

Coming into the 2020 elections, we already had a lot to worry about in my view. First, we've had more than a decade of voter suppression measures passing in states and localities with an effort to make it more difficult for people to vote. We had a Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act. And now we have a Department of Justice, as Janai said, that does not enforce the law. We have faced foreign interference at an unprecedented level in the 2016 election. And we have a president who even when he was a candidate spread disinformation about voter fraud on a regular basis.

Karen Hobert Flynn.We also have aging election infrastructure such as voting machines that malfunction, and I believe we have eight states that don't have a ballot. So if there's a problem, it's hard to do audits. And if that wasn't enough, we face a global pandemic that has had a real impact on elections. In Wisconsin, we saw people having to choose between their health and voting. And we saw long lines that were really challenging. We also have rightwing groups that are working with the RNC, the Trump campaign, and others to bring a multimillion-dollar strategy to suppress the vote by recruiting, retired military and police to stand outside polling places.

But here’s what gives me hope: The kinds of reforms that we have talked about for decades are now part of the public vernacular, such as vote by mail, motor-voter registration and other things that most people never thought about or understood why it can make a difference and be more inclusive. We are seeing so many new organizations and activists and donors engage in this work. They understand what's at stake.

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