public-policy newsletter

Protecting Americans’ Right to Vote during the Coronavirus Crisis

May 4, 2020

By Zachary Tashman

From the Presidential contest down to races for local offices, November’s elections will have profound consequences on the human services community. These elections will determine policy decisions as small as the construction of new parks, to decisions as large as the nomination of Supreme Court Justices. To uphold the legitimacy of our democracy, it is essential that every eligible voter can access a ballot and have their voice heard. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, states face the difficult challenge of administering November elections while also ensuring the health and safety of their voters and election officials. This article will examine the challenges and opportunities facing the American electoral system as we approach the 2020 general election.

The Challenges of In-Person Voting

Avoiding mass social contact is critical to combating the spread of the Coronavirus, but in most states, election infrastructure is not equipped to accommodate these unique circumstances. With around 80 percent of ballots cast in-person, sometimes in hours-long lines, there is a palpable risk that Coronavirus will discourage millions from showing up at the polls. Additionally, in-person voting requires thousands of election officials to put themselves in contact with large numbers of individuals in order to keep polling stations open. This is especially dangerous since the majority of poll workers tend to be 60 years or older, and a sizable number of polling sites are located at senior living facilities. We have already seen a chilling preview of the Coronavirus’s effect on election administration in Wisconsin where only 5 of Milwaukee’s 180 polling stations were open to voters during the April State Supreme Court election.

With human service resources already being stretched thin to deal with the fallout of the Coronavirus, state governments should do everything in their power to keep polling sites from turning into centers of mass infection. In Wisconsin, 40 voters and poll workers have contracted the virus since their election was held. Though some polling places may need to remain open to accommodate certain individuals, The National Assembly strongly supports shifting our electoral infrastructure towards non-congregational forms of voting.

The Opportunity of All-Mail Voting

As of this posting, five states (Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) conduct their elections entirely by mail, with great success. Additionally, several states permit counties to conduct all-mail elections. For example, more than 50 percent of California’s voting population lives in vote-by-mail counties. Not only does vote-by-mail promote social distancing by allowing voters to cast ballots from the safety of their own homes, but it also has been shown to be incredibly cost-effective and to boost voter engagement. A study of Utah’s vote-by-mail pilot program, conducted in 2016, found that “vote-by-mail increased turnout by 5-7 points” in the counties that participated. For context, a nationwide 6 percent increase in turnout would have resulted in more than 8 million additional Americans participating in the 2016 election. Additionally, the Pew Research Center found that in Colorado the cost of administering elections declined by more than 40 percent, with the average cost per vote dropping from around $16 per vote cast in 2008 (prior to vote-by-mail implementation) to less than $10 per vote cast in 2012 (after implementation). The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the additional federal cost of administering a national vote-by-mail election to be $1.4 billion, including the cost of printing ballots, pre-paid postage, ballot tracking, and ballot processing. In the opinion of the National Assembly, vote-by-mail is the safest and most efficient way to carry out the November elections.

Preparations for November

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included $400 million in “election security grants” which can be used by states to improve their electoral infrastructure, such as expanding vote-by-mail and early voting, as well as sanitizing polling facilities and educating the public on new election procedures. Additional funding for states to transition to vote-by-mail will likely be forthcoming as Speaker Pelosi has declared she will push to include it in any future Coronavirus economic relief legislation. Senate Democrats also have introduced the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act which would incentivize states to implement vote-by-mail by providing an additional $3.6 billion in funding to Election Assistance Commission grants and requiring states to scale up their accessibility to absentee ballots.

Action is also being taken at the state level to reduce the chance of Coronavirus transmission on election day. The Governors of Kentucky and New York have issued executive orders requiring applications for absentee ballots to be sent to all of their states’ registered voters. This process of first sending applications and then only sending ballots to individuals who requested them was used in Ohio for their primary elections in April. However, with only a month of preparation, the Ohio Secretary of State announced that postal service delays prevented all voters from receiving ballots in time. The experience Ohio just went through highlights the need to streamline the ballot delivery process and immediately begin preparing for vote-by-mail in all 50 states to ensure that November’s election runs smoothly.

Next Steps

Time is not on our side. The longer states wait to implement vote-by-mail increases the likelihood of public confusion and logistical roadblocks, both of which would lead to voter disenfranchisement. With almost every state facing budget constraints during this crisis, federal funds must be made available as soon as possible so that states do not need to plan their election procedures under a cloud of uncertainty. Congress should pass the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act as well as implement a uniform process for evaluating the validity of mail ballots. Currently, some states disqualify absentee ballots if there are technical defects such as tears or slight differences in signatures. Voters whose ballots show minor irregularities should be contacted by state boards of elections and given reasonable time to prove the validity of their vote. For states that insist on keeping in-person voting, the National Assembly urges them to extend/establish early voting periods to reduce the number of people congregating to vote on election day, thus diminishing the chance of an outbreak at polling stations.

While time does not allow for the planning of the perfect system to get peoples’ voices heard safely and fairly, we know that voting by mail has a proven track record in the states practicing this methodology long before the Coronavirus. NHSA members represent those in this country who need a voice and the most accessible avenues to vote. We support the legislation and the values behind the intent of giving everyone the opportunity to have their perspective represented through the safest way to vote.

For more information, we also suggest that members sign up for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ webinar series on voting procedures in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an upcoming discussion with former Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams, on Protecting Our Vote.