Assessing constitutional and legal challenges for the 2020 election

A panel of 10 experts spoke at a virtual symposium at the Penn Carey Law School about the challenges facing the presidential election, from the pandemic to mail-in voting.

A hand can be seen putting an envelope with the words "ballot enclosed" into a ballot box on a sidewalk.
The coronavirus pandemic is expected to increase the number of mail-in votes and ballots being dropped off at boxes like this one in Oregon.

The 2020 presidential election faces unprecedented challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest to questions about the Postal Service’s ability to handle an influx of mail-in ballots.

With the possibility that full results may not be available for many weeks after election night, states are quickly trying to put into place measures to ensure the integrity of the election process.

The Law School held a virtual symposium on Sept. 2 to assess the constitutional and legal challenges in the upcoming election, in partnership with Keep Our Republic, a nonpartisan nonprofit committed to ensuring the smooth operation of the electoral system. A panel of 10 experts from a variety of fields—including Penn’s Daniel Gillion and Osagie Imasogie, former U.S. House Speaker Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.)—looked at the potential risks and problems with the election process in the talk moderated by Ted Ruger, Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law.

Griswold, who graduated from the Law School in 2011, discussed her state’s successful vote-by-mail process, while another panelist, Elizabeth Preate Havey, an attorney and Law School alumna who chairs the Montgomery County Republican Party, described serious mail-in voting problems in her county during this year’s primary, saying the process “broke down from beginning to end at every single level.”

Gillion, the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science, highlighted how this summer’s protests and President Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric will factor into the election.

“The elephant in the room, the thing that goes bump in the night in this election, are protests, protest activities, and unrest and how individuals see them,” he said.

Imasogie, an adjunct professor at the Law School, spoke about the importance of protecting voting rights.

“If you look historically as to what is the first step in the citizenry losing their democracy, it tends to be the question of voting,” he said. “The minute you compromise the basic building blocks of that democratic construct, where the will of the people is expressed through the ballot box, then you start the process of people losing their republic.”

The wide-ranging talk looked at everything from the potential secret powers of the president to how the courts might handle a contested election, and all agreed the main goal should be a fair, fully counted election.

“That's the way we transfer power in this country, through the voices of the electors, and we have to insist upon that,” Gephardt said.

A video of the event is available on the Law School’s YouTube channel: