MeriTalk In-Depth: Securing Elections Amid the Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out with no firm end-date in sight, its impact on major events has been felt widely and the status of future events grows only more uncertain.

Among the biggest events at the very top of that list are remaining presidential primaries and the general election in November – and how to conduct them safely and securely so that the most sacred function of democracy can carry the nation forward.

The 2020 elections are posing an unprecedented wrinkle to the COVID-19 response. Public health experts want to prevent the spread of the virus, but election officials and civil rights organizations want to ensure Americans can vote.

Jessica Barba Brown, a senior advisor at the voter education nonprofit We Can Vote, said that as states move their primaries, “it’s really a warning call to us that we need to prepare right now for November.”

Many options have been floated – mail-in ballots, drive-thru voting, and expanding early voting to name a few – but none are easy to implement or guaranteed to fix the problem. In the first portion of a two-part series, we will explore how COVID-19 is impacting both the primaries and the general election, as well as how states, the Federal government, and political parties are responding.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Election Process

During the primary election season – and likely through the general election – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on social distancing and limiting group gatherings have altered the voting process significantly, along with the security of those elections.

Traditional, in-person voting often means long lines and close physical interaction with poll workers and other voters. Under CDC guidelines, the agency says that to prevent contracting COVID-19, people should avoid close contact, stay at home as much as possible, and maintain distance from other people. The CDC adds that frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.

“Elections are foundational to our democracy. But as Federal, state, tribal, and local governments issue stay-at-home orders and encourage residents to practice social distancing to combat the virus, large-scale, in-person voting on Election Day could present serious risks to public health,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a Medium post. “While many states have taken steps to postpone primary elections or adopted policies – like online registration, early voting, and vote by mail – to make it easier for eligible Americans to vote safely, others are moving ahead with ill-advised plans that could accelerate the spread of disease.”

How States are Responding

By the time COVID-19 had become a household name in early March, many states had already held their presidential primary elections. The pandemic, however, has left other state primaries in limbo.

Twelve states (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) and Puerto Rico have postponed their presidential primary elections, while three other states (Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina) have postponed specific congressional elections, according to the website of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Forty of the nation’s Secretaries of State serve as state chief election officials.

“There is no one size fits all approach, but instead a 50-state solution,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and New Mexico Sec­retary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver in a joint letter March 25. “In particular, states may increase their vote-by-mail presence, extend absentee mail ballot request deadlines, increase drive-up curbside voting, and/or expand absentee voting eligibility.”

Five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah) currently conduct all elections entirely by mail. This means that each voter is mailed a ballot, but this does not prevent individuals from exercising their franchise in person. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia allow absentee voting by mail with no reason or excuse.

The Wisconsin Experience

Wisconsin’s primary election on April 7 was a prime example of the difficulties in-person elections can pose during a serious pandemic. Despite Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers attempting to stop in-person voting, the election proceeded but with significant issues.

A shortage of poll workers for the primary election led to a consolidation of polling places and incredibly long lines, leaving voters to sometimes spend hours in close physical distance to each other. Milwaukee, Wis., had just five polling places open instead of 180 under normal circumstances. Green Bay, Wis., went from 31 polling places to just two. And Waukesha, Wis., operated just one polling place for its population of 70,000.

Many of Wisconsin’s voters were able to get their hands on absentee ballots for the election (over one million of the 1.3 million ballots requested have been returned, according to Reuters), but local officials reportedly were overwhelmed by the surge of absentee ballots. And Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said there was no way to figure how many voters may have not received their absentee ballots in time.

“We’ve heard of ballot mailing issues from a number of communities,” said Wolfe. She added there is “no remedy in the law” if a voter failed to receive a ballot on time.

Federal-Level Friction

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is looking to expand voting by mail even further. Wyden tweeted March 7 that he would fight for vote by mail to be included in the next Federal COVID-19 relief package. He is a co-sponsor of the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA) to allow no-excuse absentee vote by mail.

Not everyone agrees with that stance. “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting,” President Donald Trump tweeted March 8. In a press conference. He said mail-in voting raises “the tremendous potential for voter fraud,” and indicated a belief that if mail-in voting was expanding, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Reacting to long lines at the polls in Wisconsin’s primary, Sen. Wyden tweeted, “This cannot happen in November.”

Wyden and fellow NDEBA co-sponsor Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the $400 million included for state election support in the recent COVID-19 stimulus bill was insufficient.

“While this funding is a step in the right direction, we must enact election reforms across the country as well as secure more resources to guarantee safe and secure elections,” Wyden and Klobuchar said. “In times of crisis, the American people cannot be forced to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote.”

Forcing voters to choose between their health and exercising their democratic freedoms can have the effect of depressing voter turnout, and disenfranchising those without the ability or resources to obtain absentee ballots.

What Comes Next

In part two of this series, we’ll explore alternatives to traditional in-person voting – both high and low tech – as well as ways to make in-person voting safer for poll workers and voters alike.

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