By Evelyn Li
Elections have been postponed in a handful of states due to COVID-19. And where they have been held, for example in Wisconsin, the results have been disastrous. These voters have experienced first hand just how much the COVID-19 pandemic can disrupt our democracy. Unfortunately, far too few have acknowledged that this pandemic will eventually undermine elections in every state — be it for upcoming local races, federal primaries, or even the November general election — unless action is taken to crisis-proof our elections.
No one should have to choose between one’s health and the precious right to vote. When social distancing is recommended, business-as-usual in-person voting makes little sense. It is unreasonable to ask people to venture out of their homes and congregate at polling places. Moreover, elections can be difficult to administer in-person during a pandemic, as many poll workers are elderly; in 2018, 58% of poll workers were over 60, and it is very dangerous for them to have a high contact rate with others. As Wisconsin showed, holding an election during a pandemic can lead to a massive poll worker shortage, which can, in turn, translate to longer lines and more exposure to the virus for everyone involved.
Since we cannot keep postponing elections, states, counties, and other election administrators need to make necessary preparations starting immediately to adapt our democracy. Under no circumstances can we let our country stray from the ideal of free and fair elections.
Fortunately, the Brennan Center for Justice released a comprehensive report on steps lawmakers can take to protect our elections from COVID-19. These experts recommend a variety of reforms that can be broken down into five categories: polling place modification, expanded early voting, public education against disinformation, online voter registration, and an universal vote-by-mail option. At least with regard to the latter two reforms, some states have taken action and can be held as examples of best practice.
Vote-by-mail or absentee voting is a necessary option for voters during a pandemic. Voting from home involves minimal contact with others and decreases the number of people using in-person voting, which in turn makes polling locations safer for those who have to (or choose to) use them. Voters can drop off their ballot at a mailbox or drop box (if available) while still observing social distancing.
There are a few different variations of vote-by-mail systems.
Some states only allow voting-by-mail if a voter meets strict excuse requirements, such as physical disability or service in the military. Such narrow restrictions are unacceptable during a pandemic. Fortunately, a handful of places with strict absentee ballot laws are easing their excuse requirements in light of COVID-19. These include Indiana, Kentucky, Delaware, Arkansas, West Virginia, Alabama, Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire. Virginia also just permanently ended all excuse requirements for absentee voting.
Expanding absentee ballot access in these states has been accomplished through executive orders, actions by election administrators, and the passage of new laws. Most commonly, states just chose to expand the definition of “illness” or “physical disability” — excuses found in most election codes — to include social isolation due to COVID-19.
Fortunately, the majority of states adopted no-excuse absentee voting well before COVID-19 hit. This means anyone has access to a vote-by-mail ballot if they would like one — they just have to apply for it. No excuse absentee ballot states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mayland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Some states make no-excuse absentee balloting even easier by permitting voters to join a permanent absentee ballot list. Every voter on this list is automatically sent a ballot for every election — no additional steps needed.
Five states — Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, and Utah — go even further. These “vote-at-home states” mail a ballot to every voter which can be returned via mail or in a dropbox. California is in the midst of transitioning to this model.
While vote-at-home is a great system — perhaps the ideal system for the current crisis — it will be difficult for states with limited vote-by-mail options to make such drastic changes by November. It took years for vote-at-home to be rolled out in these states, and their operations also require specific election technology, such as high-speed scanners. Nevertheless, some states, where vote-by-mail is already common — and a permanent absentee voter list exists — can potentially transition to vote-at-home if they choose. And this is what we are seeing.
The Alaska Democratic Party cancelled all in-person voting scheduled for their April 4th primary in favor of an entirely vote-by-mail election. They posted instructions and a downloadable ballot online. Acting so proactively on matters of public health was commendable, and having the ballot on the internet made it easily available to many. This, though, was a closed, party-run primary, so changing the rules at the whim of the party was easier than it will be in a general election.
Still, proactively mailing ballots to all voters is possible, even in states that currently do not typically hold all-mail elections. The Kansas Democratic Party did this when all registered Democrats were mailed ballots for the presidential primary. Maryland, New York, and Nevada plan to follow suit for their own primaries, which have more on the ballot than just the already-decided presidential race.
Meanwhile in Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Idaho, Georgia, and West Virginia, all active registered voters will be mailed absentee ballot request forms that will have to be filled out and returned to election administrators before voters can be mailed their ballots. Milwaukee, Wisconsin will be doing so, as well. In Ohio, the Secretary of State decided to allow voters to make their own form to request an absentee ballot. They simply need a blank piece of paper to write down information such as their full name, date of birth, address, last four digits of their social security number, and party affiliation. This is a creative work-around to assist people who do not have access to a printer, though it is not nearly as good as a full vote-at-home system or mailing absentee request forms directly to voters.
For most of us, voting by mail is the safest and most convenient option. That is why making it available to more people is a baseline reform during this time of COVID-19. Systems that are entirely vote-by-mail, however, can exclude people already on the margins, such as people without housing security or who live in residences unreachable by the United States Postal System. Thus, some in-person voting must always be maintained to ensure full enfranchisement. And vote-by-mail best practices must also be followed, otherwise discrimination can occur.
Online Voter Registration
Presidential election years see the greatest increases in new voter registrations. Normally, these registrations are facilitated through government agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles or through civic organizations that hold registration drives.
During stay-at-home orders, though, many government facilities have closed down. Civic groups cannot hold registration drives, either. And field organizers and canvassers for political campaigns cannot go door-to-door or approach people at large events to register them. All the settings at which voter registration drives are normally hosted — for example churches, libraries, or high schools- — are empty.
A number of states allow for same-day registration. This is a critical fail-safe for voters who are not registered before Election Day. However, same-day registration alone is not enough to avert a registration crisis. If too many people need to register at their polling place, it will create long lines and potentially unsafe public health conditions. Moreover, if most voters prefer to vote by mail, then in-person same day registration is not an option for them.
Fortunately, even before COVD-19, 39 states had online voter registration. Thus far, only North Carolina has set up online voter registration as part of their COVID-19 response. North Carolinians who have a driver’s license can now affix the signature the DMV has on file for them to their voter registration application. It would be wise for all the remaining states to offer online voter registration, as well.
That said, online voter registration is typically only available for those who have a driver’s license. We must go even further to promote democratic participation. Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is calling for states to mass-mail out registration forms to eligible but unregistered citizens, in order to reach as many people as possible. Newspapers can also help out by printing voter registration forms in their pages, as the Ithaca Times did in 2018. So too can the media educate about voter registration and absentee ballot deadlines.
COVID-19 is no doubt an enormous problem for our elections, but luckily there are a multitude of reforms to mitigate any damages. Now is the time to plan for the worst, and we should ask all states to do the most that they can. It is also necessary for Congress to step up, particularly in the area of funding. Only $400 million was allocated towards virus-proofing elections in the $2.3 trillion stimulus package recently signed into law. Now some leaders are pushing for up to $4 billion. They need a chorus of support to back them up and affirm that democracy is essential and worth protecting.
Evelyn Li is an Equal Citizens Fellow and an incoming student at the University of Chicago.