Defending Democracy: Ensuring Access to the Ballot Box in the Era of COVID-19

By Paul Joffe

Election Protection is thrilled to launch its monthly blog series, Defending Democracy. Our goal is to highlight an important issue impacting voters each month, in the hopes that this blog will serve as a starting point for those looking to be more informed about what we can all do to protect the vote. This month’s blog highlights the many effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic on the Presidential Preference Primary season thus far, and what more can be done to protect voters.

Today, nearly every American has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the tragic deaths and illness, this crisis has upended critical aspects of civic life. This includes elections and the seemingly simple act of casting a ballot.

During this unprecedented public health emergency, elected leaders and election officials must consider the impact that revisions they make to election procedures in the midst of this crisis will have on all eligible voters, particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised by voter suppression tactics and onerous barriers to participation at the state and local level.

The task is to ensure safe access to the ballot while in the middle of battling a public health crisis.  The key is to ensure that options exist so people can choose the method of voting most suitable for their situation. Necessary social distancing protocols, as well as the unique risk to poll workers who come into contact with voters and people with underlying health conditions, make a business as usual approach impossible.  As a result, vote by mail (absentee voting) will be important for many people.  

While the option of voting by mail is an important safeguard, it does not make voting accessible for everyone. The vast majority of Americans cast ballots in person, whether on Election Day or during early in-person voting. In-person voting options and expanded early voting are especially important for voters of color and young voters. Data from states such as California show that older, white voters are more likely to vote by mail, while black and Hispanic voters and young people are more likely to vote in-person.  Similarly, voting by mail is often impossible for some voters such as many Native American voters who do not have mail delivery at their homes. In some areas mail service is inadequate, not trusted, or not available, and some people need the kind of assistance they can get at the polls. Expanding access to absentee voting as one of several voting options is crucial. But it is not a panacea for ensuring ballot access.  Instead, using vote by mail as the only option will actually have the opposite effect—it will disenfranchise many voters.

Everyone is aware of the unprecedented situation we face and the need to reform and strengthen our elections.  Prompt action should be taken beginning immediately and in the months ahead.  There will be no excuse in November 2020 that anyone involved did not know of the need to act, or did not have the time.

There will be no excuse in November 2020 that anyone involved did not know of the need to act, or did not have the time.

We must ensure that voter suppression does not become a side effect of this crisis, even unintentionally. That means having a variety of options for people to vote and allowing them to choose the method that suits them best. We will discuss ways to strengthen vote by mail in a separate post.

Below are four other ways policymakers can strengthen our election procedures while keeping people safe. (Virginia provides an example of recent voting innovations and a survey of the state of play in all states can be found here.)

1. Expand In-Person Early Voting

Expanding early in-person voting opportunities to allow for social distancing is critical to ensure that those who are not likely to, or simply cannot, vote by mail, will be able to cast their ballots. Adding additional days of early in-person voting and additional locations would help reduce crowding and can help ensure people from marginalized communities are able to vote. Local election jurisdictions should also consider adding additional satellite early voting sites and extend early morning, evening, and weekend hours to avoid crowds and long lines. Although this is important for everyone with concerns about their health and the health of their loved ones, it is particularly important for communities of color and low-income persons who are more likely to be working in jobs without flexibility, paid sick leave, or the ability to work remotely from home.

2. Make Voter Registration More Accessible

In many states, registering to vote online requires access to a computer or smartphone with reliable internet service as well as a printer—something that is impossible for many Americans due to the still-present digital divide, as well as the closure of non-essential businesses and libraries. While online voter registration should be bolstered where it already exists or is possible, states must also consider options for those without access to the internet. Additionally, many voters tend to register to vote as they interact with public assistance and general government services agencies—one of those agencies’ obligations under the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the “Motor Voter” law. About one third of voter registration applications comes from people getting a drivers license.    However, agency service centers have been closed in many/most states. In order to cure this lack of access, states should also allow for automatic voter registration online and same day voter registration.  Governors should be prepared to extend voter registration deadlines in light of likely curtailment of government services and other potential online breakdowns.

3. Keep Polling Places Safe and Accessible

In-person voting is essential for people who do not have ready access to mail voting, but we also must protect the health of voters and poll workers. Even if there is reduced turnout due to absentee and early voting, election authorities should follow public health guidelines while continuing to operate polling sites on Election Day.

Polling places must be adequately sanitized and follow guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (including requiring sick poll workers to stay home, regularly cleaning frequently touched surfaces, disinfecting potentially contaminated surfaces, such as voting machines and other equipment, and frequent hand washing and sanitizing). They should also be reconfigured for social distancing protocols, creating additional space between voting booths, poll workers, and voters standing in line. One option is expanded curb-side voting at polling places, so that at-risk voters who drive to the polls do not have to come inside or even leave their vehicles to vote.

Where local election authorities need to make modifications to polling place site determinations, they should do so well in advance so that they can effectively notify voters of polling place changes. Additionally, plans should allow for out of precinct voting in the event that polls fail to open, including consideration of vote centers.

Moreover, poll worker training must be updated. Election authorities should prepare for a surge in provisional voting due to delays in the processing of voter registration applications and voter confusion, and training should emphasize provisional ballot procedures. It should also cover social distancing and how to keep polling places clean and safe.

4. Focus on Voter Education

None of the above measures will matter unless voters are aware of them. State and local election authorities should undertake robust voter education campaigns as they make necessary changes to their policies and practices.  Since people will be unfamiliar with several of the needed changes, plain language explanations should be provided and communicated through methods that will reach people practicing social distancing or in isolation. Forms and information required from voters should be simplified and clarity should be provided regarding deadlines and other requirements  Outreach should be undertaken directly to individuals and through civic organizations, schools and colleges, and social service agencies.  As with any crisis, disinformation around COVID-19 has been rampant and has already included misinformation about elections. Election officials must be prepared to counter any disinformation (intentional or not) with facts and accurate information.

Thanks for reading this installment of Defending Democracy. If you would like to learn more about the upcoming volunteering opportunities that Election Protection offers, please click here!