The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is wreaking havoc in the United States and around the world. The virus is taking lives, disrupting our economy, and causing millions of Americans to lose their jobs. It is unclear how long it will take us to get on the right side of this pandemic and to fully recover. While states are doing what they can to help curb the spread of the virus, they must also plan ahead to the elections in November.
We cannot allow this virus to prevent Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote, nor should we expect Americans to choose between voting and protecting their health. A recent Pew survey shows that 66% of Americans polled feel uncomfortable about visiting a polling place right now because of the COVID-19 virus. We have already seen the virus negatively impact voter turnout this year, a trend that will likely continue throughout the primary season. The recent election in Wisconsin should serve as a warning of the kind of chaos that can happen if last-minute disagreements between governors, legislators, and the courts happen ahead of an election, leading to confusion among voters and election officials. We cannot risk any disruptions to the general elections in November.
How to protect voters and our elections in 2020
States should take all necessary steps to make vote-by-mail possible for all registered voters. Every state already uses vote-by-mail in the form of absentee ballots. Many states have no-excuse absentee ballot voting that allows anyone to choose to vote-by-mail or drop off their ballot. But, there are still some states that require an excuse to vote absentee. Some of these states have recently decided to allow all voters to vote-by-mail in their upcoming primary elections, and we applaud them for making this change. Other states have been forced to temporarily delay their elections. Given that our election in November cannot be postponed, and coronavirus concerns will likely still be present, all states should, at a minimum, move to no-excuse absentee ballots or allow voters to designate the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for the general election in November. If states are able to make the change for their primary elections, they should be able to make the change for the general election in November.
Due to the extreme circumstances created by this pandemic, states should make it as easy as possible for voters to vote-by-mail. States can do this by simply mailing every registered voter an absentee ballot with prepaid postage to return their completed ballots. This will alleviate the burden on county election offices to process absentee ballot applications and streamline the process avoiding delays in voters receiving their ballots. States should print additional ballots to account for newly registered voters who will want to vote-by-mail.
There are some who attempt to discredit mail-in ballots, arguing that states should not expand vote-by-mail, even in light of coronavirus concerns. A policy discussion on permanently expanding vote-by-mail can and should be held in the future. However, we should all agree that if vote-by-mail is good enough for Americans who decide to take a vacation, it is good enough for voters who want to protect themselves from the deadly coronavirus. Click here to see some of our answers to frequently asked questions about vote-by-mail.
2. Early Voting and Election Day
Even with expanded vote-by-mail, in-person voting must still be an option for many people who cannot vote-by-mail including those who are visually impaired and those with disabilities, among other people. To avoid large crowds on Election Day, states should expand early voting dates and locations to give voters more flexibility. States that currently do not have early in-person voting should implement it for this election year.
To ensure that all polling places are safe, all precautions should be taken, during early voting and on Election Day, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. All polling locations must be equipped with the necessary sanitary equipment to sanitize machines and voters’ hands after voting. Poll workers should be given the necessary personal protective equipment to protect themselves and all polling locations should limit the number of people allowed into the polling facility at a given time.
3. Voter Registration
Social distancing and quarantine will make traditional voter registration difficult. Typical get out the vote efforts rely on in-person volunteers registering voters in highly populated areas. With the coronavirus, these efforts will likely be impossible in 2020. For this reason, states should expand online voter registration capabilities and prepare for increased demand in online voter registration. States that do not employ online voter registration should take steps to implement an online voter registration system that can be used this year.
States should also consider adopting same-day registration for early voting and Election Day. Twenty-one states plus the District of Columbia already employ same-day voter registration. The remaining states should consider implementing same-day registration this year, recognizing that it is difficult for people to register in-person right now because of the pandemic. If same-day registration is not possible, states should extend voter registration deadlines. Many government offices are currently closed and it is unclear when they will be operating at full capacity. Extended deadlines may help prevent registration offices from being overwhelmed and overcrowded.
4. Voter Education
With the various changes that will be made during this election cycle, states should make it a priority to educate voters on their various voting options. States should provide educational resources and tools to answer voting questions through a variety of outlets including mail, online, and telephone. Every effort should be made to educate the public about rule changes, voting options, and accessibility. Special attention should be given to combatting disinformation and voter suppression.
5. Federal Funding
In the initial aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, Congress was rightfully focused on making sure Americans could survive this pandemic. That meant a focus on allocating funds to combat the virus and to keep people financially afloat until things can get back to “normal.” Congress must now look ahead and provide funding to states to protect our elections during this coronavirus pandemic. Either in the phase four coronavirus response bill or through stand-alone legislation specific funding for our elections must be appropriated. Estimates for how much funding is necessary vary between $2 billion and $4 billion. While $4 billion may seem like a lot of money, it is only .2% of the $2 trillion appropriated in the last stimulus package. Protecting our elections must be made a priority and funding must be appropriated as soon as possible to give states enough time to implement the changes necessary to carry out safe and secure elections this year.
We need your help. Congress needs to know that voters are concerned about the coronavirus impacting our upcoming elections in November. Tell your members of Congress that we need them to appropriate funds to help states make our elections safe.