Stanford Law’s Nate Persily on the Need for Safe 2020 Elections

(Originally published by HAI on June 4, 2020)

Experts examine the economic and social ramifications of COVID-19 during a Stanford HAI conference.

Global disease curves have flattened. U.S. states and cities have lifted shelter-in-place restrictions and begun to reopen their economies. Two months into the COVID-19 crisis, we are beginning to see signs of progress and hope. But with uncertainty about everything from vaccines to workplace protocols, we are far from done with this pandemic. The question is as much about how to return to “normal” life as when.

On June 1, 2020, the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) held its second virtual conference on COVID-19, bringing together experts from across disciplines to discuss the way forward, with focus on the intersection of social, economic, political, medical, and technological domains. Speakers addressed topics ranging from workplace COVID-19 screening and automation to 2020 election preparation — while AI and other technologies are topics of focus, speakers emphasized the broad context and implications of the current global challenge.

Stanford Law School’s Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law, with appointments in the departments of Political Science, Communication, and FSI, spoke on the need for safe 2020 elections. Below are key insights of his talk during the Stanford HAI conference. 

Preparing for the 2020 Elections

That sentiment applies well to the upcoming presidential election.

“Elections are tests of a nation’s ability to communicate messages of legitimacy,” says Nathaniel Persily, Stanford professor of law. “It’s the absolute worst time for a pandemic.”

Because COVID has hindered “analog” means of campaigning and voting, we will rely on more remote, technology-enabled means, he notes; “That requires shifting tens of millions of voters from the old way to a new, unfamiliar one.”

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Broad solutions will also include increased voting by mail and retrofitting polling stations to promote social distance. The process will inevitably be complex and controversial. Part of the challenge is a highly decentralized electoral system, with many responsibilities held by individual jurisdictions — “a patchwork quilt of regulations and opportunities,” Persily says.

Beyond governance issues, there’s potential for racial bias; for example, mail-in votes tend to be used more by white, highly educated voters. Moreover, challenges include providing the people (poll workers are generally older volunteers more at risk for COVID), the places (senior centers are typical polling stations), and the things (voting machines, ballots); states may even compete for resources.

“We need to pursue education and outreach,” along with exploring novel approaches including curbside voting options. Persily is working on such ideas as part of a collaboration between Stanford Law School and MIT.

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Watch the full Conference Video