Omari Spears/UCS

States Need to Update Emergency Election Plans, Scientists Need to Step Up

, Kendall Science Fellow | March 11, 2020, 3:34 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Even if the U.S. is successful at managing Coronavirus infection rates and lethality, it has the capacity to wreak havoc on the November election. Flattening out the infection curve over time in order to maintain adequate healthcare delivery supply will push outbreaks into summer and possibly Fall. Voters may be hesitant to go to precincts, poll workers could be in short supply, and local election officials who lack direction could make arbitrary decisions over polling hours or the processing of ballots. Introducing all this uncertainty into an already close election is sure to amplify claims of voter suppression and voter fraud. If the election is contested and the results inconclusive, the political epidemic could be just as dangerous as the biological one.

Most state and local governments have emergency plans in place to respond to power shortages, natural disasters and public safety threats, but few are prepared to adequately deal with an electoral emergency of this type. Secretaries of State need to act now to ensure that every eligible voter has the capacity to cast a ballot, that election results are counted accurately and in a timely manner, and that those results are effectively communicated to media and the public. People who have experience handling data, including scientists, also have an important role to play.

We already know how to get ballots to voters and safely have them returned. The state of Washington just held their primary, and while ballots are still being counted, turnout is already around 35%, higher than most other states that have already held primaries. In King County, one of the first and largest clusters of Coronavirus infection, turnout is just as high, and possibly higher than the statewide average. Washington’s implementation of universal mail ballots is a big reason they were able to achieve this success. Washington voters receive their ballots in the mail, then mail them back or drop off their ballots at conveniently located ballot drop boxes. Oregon, Colorado and Hawaii also hold all elections by mail.

Over twenty states already have provisions to conduct some elections entirely by mail, and all states have the capacity to process absentee ballots. The time is now for all states to prepare to send mail ballots to all registered voters, with self-adhesive return envelopes. This is the safest and most secure way to ensure that every voter is free to participate.

Next, election administrators must be prepared to process those ballots. Secretaries of State should dedicate emergency resources to upgrade ballot verification and processing, whether through signature verification, or requiring voters to include a copy of identification with their ballot. Whatever method is adopted, they must establish a transparent process for curing signature or identification errors, giving voters an opportunity to verify their identity in a timely manner. Citizens have an important role to play here, especially those with data management experience. Volunteering to work with a county clerk or registrar to process ballots and conduct risk-limiting audits can speed up the counting while increasing transparency and security. Secretaries of State should also require that ballots be processed as they are returned, rather than waiting until election night. Many states already do this and there is no pressure to release early results.

Finally, we need to prepare for the communication of results. Election night returns will be incomplete as late mailed ballots typically take several days to count and verify. Voters need to be prepared for this, and the process should be transparent as results are added to the totals. Hundreds of counties across the country still lack even a basic election website, much less the capacity to upload machine readable precinct vote totals. States must provide the necessary resources, and people with the appropriate skills should devote some labor to helping ensure an accurate and open return of election results. Contact your local elections official. Your talent is needed.

Congress is starting to take action. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has introduced the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act, which would require all states to offer a mail ballot option if more than 12 declare a state of emergency. The bill also requires states to offer self-adhesive return envelopes, and provides 500 million dollars to fund these emergency efforts. This would be an important start. Congress should pass and the president should immediately sign this legislation so that Congress can begin assisting states. But states don’t have to wait for Congress, they should be taking action now, while they have time.

Omari Spears/UCS

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