With less than 100 days before the November election, majority leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate COVID-19 Bill provides ZERO dollars for emergency election support, despite growing bi-partisan agreement that states need more funds to secure health protections like expanded vote-by-mail capacity. UCS has updated its COVID-19 Election Preparedness analysis to account for recent changes in state vote-by-mail laws, showing that huge gaps in state capacity to operate a safe and equitable election remain. Without funding and legal protections for voters, states will be forced to make costly tradeoffs between investments in voter safety, poll worker training, and the massive need for public education and outreach.
Attorney General Bill Barr’s preposterous claim that expanded vote-by-mail will lead to foreign actors “counterfeiting” ballots, which was immediately rejected by actual election experts, has received more media attention, but it is the Senate’s indifference to the needs of state and local election officials that is steering the country into an electoral disaster this November.
According to the Voting Rights Lab Voting Rights Tracker, more than 400 bills in 44 states have been introduced to address voting by mail. Our analysis ranks states according to the following vote-by-mail provisions: eligibility to vote-by-mail, witness/notary signature requirements, postmark deadlines, paid postage, technology for sending and tracking ballots, and the verification and ballot correction procedures used to process ballots. Previous UCS analyses have identified four features to ensure a safe and secure election for all voters:
- Self-adhesive, postage paid ballots mailed to every eligible voter (with no additional requirements) with full ballot tracking capacity;
- Early drop box and in-person voting through vote centers (allows voters to drop off/cast ballots at any center);
- Maximize points of service and equity focus (with an adequate supply of voting machines, allocated in areas with less vote-by-mail frequency) to minimize Election Day COVID-19 exposure;
- Transparent, pro-voter process of ballot verification and curing process to ensure that all eligible ballots are counted in a timely matter
The most important changes over the last few months have to do with expanded eligibility to safely vote from home. In total, 15 states (and the District of Columbia) have expanded vote-by-mail from where they were before the pandemic. Unfortunately, those expansions have been incremental. None of the states with the lowest levels of preparedness have taken the pro-active measure of sending their voters mail ballots or vote-by-mail applications, for example. However, several have reduced an important barrier by allowing no-excuse vote-by-mail.
|COVID-19 Vote-by-Mail Preparedness|
|High||AZ,CA,CO,HI,MT,OR,UT,VT,WA||CA,VT now providing ballots to all active voters|
|DE,IL,IA,MA,MI,MD,OH,WI now sending vote-by-mail applications|
|Low||AL,AR,CT,IN,KY,LA,MS,MO,NH,NY*,SC,TN,TX,WV||AL,AR,MO,NH,TN now allow no-excuse vote-by-mail|
Most changes have occurred in states with a moderate level of preparedness, where eight states have decided to send vote-by-mail applications to voters. At the top of the scorecard, California and Vermont have joined Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and Utah to send all eligible voters a ballot in the mail.
Voters in nine states (CT, NY, IN, KY, LA, MS, SC, TX, WV) are still required to have an excuse to vote-by-mail, though several states, including New York and West Virginia, are working on provisions to expand. In Connecticut, the governor has called the legislature into special session and to expand vote-by-mail eligibility and access, and the NAACP and League of Women Voters have filed a lawsuit to remove barriers to vote-by-mail.
Other notable election reforms that have been implemented since the pandemic include:
Montana moving to no-excuse voting early on; New Jersey voters obtaining the right to be notified of rejected ballots; similar notification and correction procedures adopted in North Dakota; and a federal judge having recently suspended these notary signature requirements in Rhode Island. Other states like Alabama and Oklahoma are still requiring witness or notary verification before a ballot will be accepted. Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are among the few states that have done virtually nothing to expand ballot access, so voters in those states are at highest risk for not being able to vote safely in the general election.
In this changing electoral environment, public outreach is essential if we expect to succeed in transitioning as many people as possible to vote-by-mail. It is no surprise that less affluent voters and those who are not as plugged in to the political process are less trusting of changing the way that they are used to voting.
A recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows the disconnect between education and preference for vote-by-mail. Among adults who have high school or less education, only 29% say they would prefer to vote using a mail ballot, compared to 54% of adults with post-graduate college education. Voters of lower socio-economic status have also been less likely to use vote-by-mail in the primaries, illustrating the need for outreach to ensure that all voters are aware of safe options.
Even when access to vote-by-mail is expanded, without extensive training and public outreach, the challenges of scaling up can result in disenfranchisement. Consider the case of Kentucky, which broke records for the number of mail ballots (75%) cast in its high turnout primary election, in part due to a committed vote-by-mail program. Nevertheless, consolidated precincts resulted in dangerously long lines at many polling stations, and several counties exhibited outright negligence in rejecting mail ballots. For example, Fayette County election officials rejected 8% of mail ballots cast for reasons including missing “flaps” on envelopes and envelopes that were not properly sealed.
These are not problems with voters, these are problems with envelopes, problems that proper training and public education can address. Nearly 2,000 ballots were rejected because of missing signatures, which is going to be more common with so many first-time mail voters. There is no way to interpret an 8% rejection rate as anything other than a disaster. Now imagine this sort of malpractice and lack of preparation exercised across multiple states in the same election.
For the country as a whole to overcome these challenges and hold a safe and secure election, Congress must act now. The federal government needs to ensure that all voters, regardless of where they live, have equal access to a safe and secure ballot. That is not possible without federal standards to protect equal access to the ballot. At a minimum, every voter should have the option to vote safely from home, and have their vote counted. We will eventually recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, but our democracy may never recover from a major electoral disaster.