The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic poses a major threat to the November 2020 election regarding both the health of citizens and the health of our democracy. As of May 12, the virus has already taken the lives of over 80,000 Americans, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Situation Update estimates the death toll in several regions of the country to continue to increase into June. Directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are warning about the possibility of a resurgence this fall. As a result of existing election laws and past investment in voting technology, the capacity to meet voters’ needs varies greatly across states.
On March 25, the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and American Nurses Association published an unprecedented open letter calling on the American people to stay home to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. If more than half of the 150-million-plus voters expected to turn out in 2020 cast their votes in person on Election Day, as they did in 2016, we risk a spike in SARS-CoV-2 cases. If citizens decide that exercising their right to vote in person is not worth the health risk, few states are equipped with the capacity to manage a surge in requests for absentee ballots. Under either scenario, typically elderly poll workers may be quarantined, local administrators will struggle to operate under emergency conditions, and even minor irregularities will amplify incentives to question election results. We have not seen this kind of challenge to the integrity of a presidential election in our lifetimes.
Only eight states have extensive experience and best practices established for running near universal vote-by-mail elections. While most of these states have built out their infrastructure over several years, the rest of the country has six months to engineer the sort of surge capacity that will make it possible for most voters to exercise their right to vote without risking their health.
|Less competitive states||More competitive states|
|Lower VBM Capacity||Higher VBM Capacity||Lower VBM Capacity||Higher VBM Capacity|
|Lower Early Vote Capacity||AL||NJ||GA||MI|
|Higher Early Vote Capacity||AK||CA||FL||AZ|
For millions of voters, disability, lack of residential mail access, or other needs make it necessary to vote in person on or before Election Day. In nearly half of the states, fewer than 10% of voters cast early in-person ballots, demonstrating another weak point which could force in-person voters to be clustered together in long lines on Election Day.
Fortunately, the country has both the experience and expertise needed to meet these challenges. Agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) have developed safety protocols for polling places, curbside voting and emergency management guidelines in non-healthcare settings.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) and Sector Coordinating Council’s (SCC) Joint COVID Working Group has developed a timeline, starting in April, to guide states in the many stages of preparation (voter list maintenance and voter education; ballot production, delivery, and tracking; inbound processing and tabulation; signature verification and cure process). The National Association of State Election Directors has collected these and many other state and local government resources to aid election officials in the transition.
According to The Voting Rights Lab State Voting Rights Tracker, 17 states have already taken action to adapt their election laws to these challenges. Eight states (Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont) have enacted or introduced legislation to expand vote-by-mail. Many of these states, as well as Louisiana and Michigan, are working to ease restrictions on absentee voting, and most of these states are directing local authorities for COVID-19 preparedness for in-person voting.
Numerous bipartisan and non-partisan organizations, political scientists and election law scholars have also published recommendations to ensure that all eligible voters can have their votes accurately counted. For example, the National Task Force on Election Crises, another cross-ideological, bi-partisan group of nationally recognized experts has published an extensive COVID-19 election guide. The UCLA Voting Rights Project, Union of Concerned Scientists, and University of New Mexico Center for Social Policy have collaborated on language to guide legislation on accessing mail ballots, signature matching, curing provisions, postage and ballot tracking, and reporting results. Distinguished scholars brought together for a Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy have published 14 specific recommendations to increase voter confidence in the legitimacy of the election. The Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of over 150 non-profit organizations, has launched a virtual town hall series to engage residents in helping their states to prepare for November.
We know how to meet this challenge. Congress must now possess the political will to act, to empower state and local governments with the resources and rules needed to ensure that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, have an equal opportunity to vote in a free and fair election. Without congressional leadership, sickness, death, and electoral dysfunction could erode the very foundation of their authority and the rule of law.
By far the greatest burden of this crisis falls on local governments, where in some states up to 90% of the costs for protecting voters and poll workers will be borne. A recent Brennan Center for Justice study estimated that current relief from the CARES Act covers only 10-20% of these costs in states like Georgia and Ohio. Based on data from Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania, the average surge capacity cost per registered voter ranges from $12-$14 per voter. Using 2016 national voter registration estimates, which we know for certain is lower than the number of voters who will be eligible to vote in 2020, the minimal cost for national capacity ranges from 1.9 to 2.2 billion dollars. But nearly double that (3.6 billion) will be needed to fully meet the infrastructure needs of local election offices, which include the following:
- Expanding safe and secure voter registration options, including online voter registration and same-day voter registration
- Extending early in-person voting periods to allow for voters to come in over a spread-out period rather than in a cluster on Election Day
- Ensuring adequate voter education by informing the public of new practices and combatting misinformation
- Implementing robust voting-by-mail
- Creating accessible and secure ballot drop sites
- Creating safe in-person polling places that comply with CDC guidelines
- Guaranteeing that polling place adjustments do not disproportionately impact vulnerable populations
- Establishing statewide, real-time ballot tracking systems, available through county registrar or clerk’s offices, that allow voters to track their ballot from the moment it is sent to the moment it is scanned and accepted
- Facilitating real-time reporting of ballots processed as they are received through a uniform reporting database, made publicly available on each state’s Secretary of State website, through which the state publishes the mail status, return rates, and denial rates of all mail ballots on or before the final election count
- Providing for a 21-day period after Election Day for voters to cure challenged ballots
- Publishing documentation of successful completion of signature verification training for relevant election officials 14 days before ballots are mailed to voters
- Requiring the implementation of alternative methods for ballot verification if there is a discrepancy between the signature on the ballot and the signature on file
It will be impossible for local governments to achieve these objectives without Congressional support.
The nation’s policy leaders have come together to assist Congress and states in averting a national health catastrophe. Together, we can protect the lives of millions of voters as they exercise their most fundamental right as citizens, build a healthier democracy, and live up to our constitutional principles. But to accomplish that, Congress must act now, and act decisively.