The Busiest Man in Oregon Right Now Is Also One of the Country’s Foremost Early Voting Experts

The past seven months have been a blur. But forecasting what’s to come keeps professor Paul Gronke up at night.

By Julia Silverman October 16, 2020

Professor Paul Gronke of Reed College's Early Voting Information Center, is just a little busy these days.

The calls are coming now from Sweden and Slovakia, Russia and France, almost daily, with reporters wanting Professor Paul Gronke’s hot takes on the 2020 U.S. presidential election. 

After all, Gronke’s ordinarily slightly obscure academic specialties—early voting, vote by mail, and election reform—have assumed front-and-center roles in the operatic race between incumbent President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joseph Biden. 

That’s put Gronke and his colleagues at Reed’s Early Voting Information Center on speed-dial for reporters who want to know about everything from how to interpret early voting trends to whether there’s any truth to theories about counterfeit ballots being pushed by foreign countries. (Spoiler alert: Absolutely not, and the U.S. Attorney General should be ashamed to promote the baseless theory, says Gronke.)  

He’s been involved in litigation that allowed Pennsylvania to install more ballot drop boxes, over the objections of the Trump administration, and with an ongoing case over absentee ballot procedures in North Carolina. It’s all created a rich avalanche of data for future study.  

“As an academic, when the world arrives at your doorstep, you are not doing research, you just drink from the firehose,” Gronke says. “You try to ride the 15-foot-wave and not get crushed in the sand. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, the president has tweeted something, and there goes the next three days.” 

Now, with just over two weeks left until the election—and with ballots arriving in Oregonians’ mailboxes—we asked Gronke for his thoughts on what’s surprised him most in the last seven topsy-turvy months, and his predictions for Election Day and beyond. 

For starters, he says, the whole “vote by mail” concept needs a rebrand. Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling took a stab at this, arguing years ago that it should be called “universal ballot delivery,” but Gronke likes the more user-friendly “vote at home.” That’s because ballots can be delivered by mail, yes, but returned in all kinds of ways—by mail, to a ballot drop box, or in person to a local elections office. (Just not, please, at an unsanctioned drop box erected at a gun shop or a church, despite what the California GOP might claim.) 

For all its fits and starts, the 2020 election is likely to produce long-term change in how Americans vote, Gronke says, once voters in other states get a taste of the ease of voting from home versus standing in an hours-long line. Plus, given all the hand-wringing over the postal system this year, he expects more use of ballot drop boxes in the future—they are safe and secure and beloved by voters, if not the governor of Texas. 

And yet, Gronke is relieved that every state wasn’t expected to adopt an Oregon-style universal vote-at-home program this year, an idea that was floated at the pandemic’s outset, because, he says, states like New York that have offered primarily in-person voting need time to clean up voting rolls and make sure they have accurate information on file. 

Then there is the issue of different rules in every state for processing ballots as they come in. In Pennsylvania, for example, which is widely being pegged as a must-win state for both Trump and Biden, state laws prohibit election workers from processing absentee ballots until Election Day, whereas Oregon workers can start as soon as ballots come in, although results aren’t released until that fateful Tuesday. 

Given that, Gronke will be keeping a close eye on Pennsylvania on November 3, along with Florida—though in that case, he says state elections officials should be better equipped to handle the change in format, since about a third of Florida’s electorate has regularly voted absentee in the past, as opposed to only 5 percent of Pennsylvanians. 

These other states are looking to Oregon, Washington and Colorado for guidance, he says, and in turn, he’s working more closely with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office than ever: “The election directors in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado are on weekly calls with officials around the country. It feels even more like a partnership—it’s all hands on deck to help the rest of the country. 

In part because of the delayed count in places like Pennsylvania, Gronke’s doubtful that we’ll know right away who has won the presidential race. But he’s optimistic that an answer could come within a day or two, he says, given Biden’s widening lead in both high-quality national and battleground state polls. (Again, watch out for Florida, though, he says: If the state turns out to be super-competitive, that’s an indication that things are tilting Trump’s way.) 

While you wait, don’t read too much into the reports of waves of early voters returning their ballots or waiting in long lines to cast their votes, which news reports have suggested are mostly Democratic. Republican voters are likely to counter-balance that with in-person turnout closer to Election Day, Gronke says. 

And when the dust of the election finally clears, as it someday blessedly will, he says there will be years of unpacking the results ahead.  

“We will learn about the vulnerabilities of vote by mail, where the weak points are,” Gronke says. “Is it state laws? The quality of the postal service? Native American reservations and bad address systems? We are going to learn a lot.” 

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