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The 2020 elections could have been a disaster, with a pandemic, social unrest, constant litigation and a deeply divided electorate. But to the surprise of many election officials and observers, it all went exceptionally well. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: In the days following Election Day, even as tens of thousands of workers continued to count the votes, there was a collective sigh of relief from those who run elections.
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MEAGAN WOLFE: Yesterday's voting process and election night counting went very well in Wisconsin and across the country.
BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Election workers around the state are working with integrity to ensure every legal ballot is counted.
KATHY BOOCKVAR: Whatever the outcomes are, I can tell you that I'm so proud to work with the 67 counties and the election officials who are just doing an amazing job.
FESSLER: These top election officials from Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania knew it could have been a lot worse, especially when you have more than 150 million people doing something they're not used to doing - voting during a pandemic.
BEN HOVLAND: Frankly, I was surprised that it was as smooth as it was.
FESSLER: Ben Hovland is chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that provides aid to state and local election officials.
HOVLAND: Everything we saw this year was sort of traditional Election Day hiccups - machines that maybe didn't start first thing in the morning. You had some poll workers that didn't show up.
FESSLER: And there were definitely some very long lines but not nearly as many as there were during this spring's chaotic primaries. Hovland thinks Congress helped by providing millions of dollars for equipment to handle a flood of mail-in ballots. Also helpful - hundreds of thousands of people who volunteered to be poll workers this fall after so many older ones dropped out.
HOVLAND: People turning out to be poll workers this year was awesome.
FESSLER: He hopes that's one silver lining from the pandemic - a whole new generation of poll workers and maybe better public understanding of how elections work. MIT professor Charles Stewart, who has advised election officials for years on how to improve voting, says one other advantage this year was that voters had so many options. Fewer people came to the polls on Election Day because so many had already cast their ballots early and by mail. Stewart says it helped that voters, for the most part, seemed to listen to the experts.
CHARLES STEWART: There were so many people who were just really insistent that we all go vote, right? It was like, you know, have a plan, and, you know, have a plan A, and have a plan B, and go vote.
FESSLER: Almost like a wartime mobilization, which it sort of was.
STEWART: Almost every relevant actor treated voting in 2020 as being under existential threat and needing emergency attention. And I think there was just much greater attention to the voting process - I mean, a sense of civic pride and duty that one normally doesn't see.
FESSLER: He said voters mailed their ballots in early to avoid postal delays, and waiting in line was almost like a badge of patriotism. That said, Stewart and others think there's plenty of room for improvement, like clear rules for mail-in voting with more realistic deadlines and more conveniences like drop boxes and the ability to track ballots online, not to mention a better allocation of polling sites so lines don't have to be so long. Virginia's elections commissioner, Chris Piper, thinks one reason things went so well was preparation. He gives credit to the federal agencies that have been working closely with state and local officials for the past three years to protect against foreign interference and cyberattacks, which could have crippled the election.
CHRIS PIPER: They were giving us tons of information. They were communicating in a timely manner. It was really pretty awesome to see how far we've come in four years.
FESSLER: He and others hope that four years from now, they'll have learned more lessons from the 2020 election and be even better prepared.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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