The nightmare scenario goes something like this: Large numbers of voters become disenfranchised because they’re worried it’s not safe to vote and that participating makes it more likely they catch the coronavirus. Voter-registration efforts, almost always geared toward in-person sign-ups, bring in very few new voters; few states allow online voter registration, and relatively few first-time voters take part in the election. A surge of demand for absentee ballots overwhelms election administrators, who haven’t printed enough ballots. In some states, like Texas, where fear of coronavirus isn’t a valid reason to request an absentee ballot, turnout drops as Americans are forced to choose between voting in person (and risking contact with the coronavirus) or not voting at all.
At the same time, confidence in the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service — whose coronavirus funding President Donald Trump has already threatened to block — teeters, and its involvement in handling so many absentee votes causes concern. Much as happened during the Wisconsin primary, a flood of mailed-in ballots makes it impossible to get full returns on election night, with heavily blue Democratic cities being, as usual, among the slowest to count. Trump declares victory based on those early returns, and again claims that the yet-to-be-counted absentees are tainted with fraud. Days later, with those votes counted, Joe Biden is declared the victor. Across the political spectrum, faith in the democratic process disintegrates as Americans question both the validity of the election and the ability of the government to respond to challenges it should have seen coming.