Election Contingency Planning During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In response to COVID-19, actions should be taken to protect elections and Americans' right to vote.

Posted on 03/19/20
(Photo by Tim Dennel, CC license)

COVID-19 is officially a global pandemic. As of March 18, the virus had already infected more than 205,400 people globally and claimed more than 8,200 lives. The virus is spreading quickly—and with no viable vaccine, government officials are taking various precautions, including restricting travel, to stem further outbreaks.

To avoid the risk of infection, health officials in part recommend avoiding situations involving large crowds to reduce the chances of coming into contact with someone who may have COVID-19 and staying home if you are sick except to seek medical care. Major sporting and cultural events have been cancelled or postponed worldwide; the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for coronavirus, and the International Olympic Committee has reportedly discussed holding the 2020 Summer Olympic Games without spectators. In the United States, many employers are telling workers to stay home, and religious institutions and schools are closing their doors in an effort to contain the disease.

Precautions such as these are necessary to avoid community spread. At the same time, quarantines, the shuttering of community spaces, and other actions to contain the spread of a potentially deadly illness introduce complications in administering elections, threatening Americans’ ability to vote.

To protect this right, decision-makers must establish emergency contingency plans for administering elections in ways that provide access to the ballot while ensuring peoples’ health and safety. Such plans must aim to accomplish the following goals:

  • Promote voter participation for every eligible American, including ensuring those with the coronavirus and people who are or have been quarantined can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts
  • Prevent further spread of the disease
  • Protect the integrity, accessibility, and security of the electoral process

The most critical steps going forward are to make it as easy as possible for all eligible Americans to register and vote and to provide states with sufficient resources to implement any necessary changes to do so. In the midst of a national crisis such as this, flexibility in the voter registration and voting process is key.

For primary elections occurring later this year, the coronavirus presents a serious challenge for election administration, and states must carefully balance concerns about public health against the impact that delaying scheduled elections would have on our democracy. Ensuring peoples’ health and safety is of paramount importance, while depriving the American people of a free and fair election will inevitably result in a legitimacy crisis at all levels of government. CAP’s proposals would allow elections to proceed while helping to mitigate public health risks during these extremely unusual conditions. Under no circumstance should the 2020 general election be delayed; states and Congress have time to act now to prepare.

Following are steps that lawmakers, election officials, and poll workers can take to administer elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Importantly, the recommendations detailed below will help to improve election administration—not only in this year’s election cycle but also in all cycles going forward. Indeed, nationwide adoption of these sensible policy solutions is long overdue and offer immeasurable gains in expanding and protecting the right to vote for years to come.

Taking these emergency measures is strictly nonpartisan. In their absence, voters of all political persuasions will be prevented from casting ballots.

In responding to COVID-19, officials should prioritize these first three recommendations, which will be the most impactful in ensuring eligible Americans can participate in upcoming elections while also helping to prevent further spread of the virus.

Federal lawmakers must provide emergency funding for elections

Every election cycle, election workers are forced to administer elections with limited resources and outdated infrastructure. Although elections have always been severely underfunded, the situation is even more dire now that officials must contend with COVID-19. Federal leaders have a duty to protect the fundamental right to vote. To fulfill that duty, they must appropriate emergency funding to states and localities to implement necessary measures such as those listed below to keep upcoming elections safe, secure, and accessible. It is especially important that Congress allocate considerable funding for implementing and expanding voter registration and voting opportunities for all eligible Americans, including but not limited to online voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, vote by mail, and early voting. Emergency funding may also be directed to the U.S. Postal Service to manage demands on the postal system caused by increased use of mail-in ballots and should cover the cost of postage.

Expand opportunities for eligible Americans to register to vote remotely

Officials can accomplish this by adopting common-sense policies such as online voter registration, which allows Americans to register to vote online rather than waiting for registration forms to arrive by mail or traveling to the local registrar’s office to register in person. Online registration ensures Americans can have their names added to the voter rolls even if postal services are halted or delayed due to the virus. At minimum, voter registration forms must be made readily available and accessible remotely to potential registrants to complete at home or in quarantine locations. To ensure the speedy return of completed forms, jurisdictions could establish secure voter registration drop boxes or drive-up, drop-off sites conveniently located across communities, including in rural areas and on tribal lands.

Furthermore, states without same-day voter registration, including on Election Day, must adopt the policy immediately. Individuals who are ill, acting as caregivers, or whose lives are otherwise disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic may have difficulty meeting strict voter registration deadlines that occur days or weeks before Election Day.

Expand opportunities for people to vote from home or at quarantine locations

States should think seriously about adopting all vote-by-mail elections with vote centers or other in-person options for people who prefer or need them. States such as Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have already implemented all-mail elections with great success, and Hawaii will begin implementing all-mail voting during the 2020 elections. Another option is to adopt no-excuse absentee voting and extend deadlines for requesting absentee ballots. A handful of states have permanent absentee votinglists, whereby every registered voter who signs up receives an absentee ballot each election. As a precaution for upcoming elections, jurisdictions should automatically maila ballot to each registered voter well in advance of voting periods. Voters should be able to return their ballots by mail or by dropping their voted ballot off at conveniently located secure drop boxes or at drive-up, drop-off locations. Ballot envelopes should be self-sealing to protect the health and safety of election workers who handle absentee ballots. All absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day must be counted even if they are ultimately received days later due to postal service delays.

In implementing vote-by-mail policies, election officials must work closely with disability rights advocates to ensure that Americans with disabilities and aging Americans are able to fully participate in the democratic process in manners that are both accessible and secure. Native American communities, which may not have convenient access to postal services, must also be closely consulted, and it is vital that voters have access to accessible language ballots if they want them. Furthermore, vote-by-mail and absentee ballot programs should be coupled with ballot tracking mechanisms so that voters can track the status of their ballot and be notified if there are problems. A number of jurisdictions already allow voters to track their ballot.

In expanding voting opportunities for people and communities affected by the COVID-19 virus, it is important that officials resist the urge to adopt policies such as online or cellular voting or allow voters to return completed ballots via fax. Electronic voting methods such as these are notoriously insecure and fraught with potential errors. While officials must make every effort to ensure all eligible people can vote in upcoming elections, they must also ensure votes are kept safe and secure.

Although the above recommendations will be the most impactful, officials should also seek to implement the following.

Have extra poll workers on standby in case others become ill or are quarantined

Even in jurisdictions that are adopting robust vote-by-mail procedures, some polling places will and, in fact, must remain open.

Unfortunately, poll workers tend to be older adults and at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Younger poll workers can also be affected or may be forced to self-quarantine. To prevent staffing shortages at polling places, jurisdictions must have an overabundance of poll workers on standby in case others get sick or cannot come to the polls. 

Polling places must be kept safe and sanitary

Polling places should comply with CDC polling place guidance, and poll workers should receive robust training on properly sanitizing equipment and social distancing to protect themselves and others from contracting the virus. CDC posters should be visible and posted throughout polling locations to remind voters and poll workers of basic safeguards they can take to prevent the spread of germs and identify signs of illness. The CDC supplies these posters in various languages, including English, Spanish, simplified Chinese, and Vietnamese. Furthermore, poll workers must sanitize poll books as well as voting and tabulating equipment regularly throughout each day during voting periods. Sanitary supplies must be readily available at each voting station or booth, and poll workers and voters must be advised and regularly reminded to sanitize all equipment prior to use. Finally, election officials should consult public health experts and infectious disease specialists to determine additional precautionary steps that can be taken to keep polling places safe.

Importantly, no one should be turned away from voting if they exhibit any signs of illness. Furthermore, in jurisdictions where polling places are relocated away from nursing homes to protect older Americans who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, officials must ensure that these new polling locations remain nearby and are still accessible so that aging Americans are not inadvertently disenfranchised. Notice of any change to polling place locations must be provided to affected people in a timely manner and in accessible formats.

Adopt measures to prevent long lines or crowds at polling locations

Health experts advise that one of the most basic and effective ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus is to avoid interactions with large groups. Each election, long lines at polling places force people to wait, often in confined spaces, for prolonged periods of time before they can vote. To avoid this, jurisdictions should increase the number of polling places available, expand early voting periods, and extend the hours that polling places remain open. By giving voters more options for when and where to vote, jurisdictions can avoid long lines and congested polling places where the virus can easily spread.

States with strict voting rules must relax onerous requirements

The best way to address problems associated with strict voting requirements is to eliminate or suspend them altogether. Requirements such as mandating absentee ballots be signed and notarized by notary publics or by witnesses, or that people applying for voter ID cards must present original documents proving eligibility, or that provisional voters must verify their eligibility in person immediately following an election in order for their ballots to count are excessively burdensome and unnecessary, especially in the midst of public health emergencies. Such rigid requirements must be suspended or—at minimum—significantly relaxed in elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adopt and extend paid time off for voting

States that currently do not provide workers with paid time off for voting must do so. States that already guarantee paid time off for voting should extend the number of paid hours that can be used to vote, allow workers to choose when they vote, and permit workers to vote during early voting periods instead of only on Election Day. Numerous problems could arise during voting periods because of COVID-19, including the potential for significant delays at polling locations and complications deriving from other emergencies. Workers should feel empowered to participate in the democratic process without fear of losing their job or wages. In the absence of formal legislation, employers can independently choose to provide their workers with paid time off and should be strongly encouraged to do so.

Officials at all levels must engage in robust information sharing

Administering elections during this and other future outbreaks will be a challenge for state and local election officials as well as poll workers. Complications will arise on a weekly, daily, and even hourly basis that will require officials to make adjustments in election protocols and practices. To prevent mass confusion and electoral chaos, all those involved in planning for and administering elections must communicate directly and continually with one another, along with state public health departments, to provide constant on-the-ground updates and troubleshoot solutions to emerging problems.

Keep the public informed of changes to election procedures and polling locations

Information must be regularly posted on official state and local websites. This includes but is not limited to the webpages of secretaries of state or lieutenant governors and county election offices. Information must be presented in other languages in addition to English and must be accessible for people with disabilities. Information should also be posted on official social media accounts, reported in state and local newspapers, and presented on local TV and radio news programs. Officials should establish specific helplines that members of the public can call to ask questions and receive information directly from those in charge. 

Conclusion

When it comes to administering elections during a public health emergency, there is no silver bullet. We all must be prepared for COVID-19 to disrupt elections in innumerable ways even where officials take affirmative action to mitigate potential problems. That being said, the above recommendations will go a long way in protecting the right to vote while helping to ensure the health and safety of Americans voters and society at large.

Ultimately, the success of the 2020 elections depends on the mutual cooperation of all Americans. The public must be patient with and demonstrate compassion toward election workers, who are under tremendous pressure to modify election processes in response to the current crisis. And registrants and voters should—if at all possible—plan ahead in requesting and submitting necessary election documents to build in extra time in case of delays.

For their part, campaigns and members of the media should exercise restraint regarding election result reporting. Because of this pandemic, more Americans than ever will likely use absentee voting, and it is vital that election officials be given plenty of time to properly count all ballots and conduct strong post-election audits to confirm election results. If significant delays occur, campaigns and the media must resist promoting conspiracy theories about rigged elections or supposed voter fraud.

Administering elections during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely test America’s electoral system in ways we have not witnessed before—and it will require significant and time-sensitive action by all involved. But by adopting common-sense solutions, officials can avoid many foreseeable problems and increase the likelihood that this year’s elections can be carried out safely and effectively.

Danielle Root is the associate director of voting rights and access to justice for Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress.

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