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Coronavirus is changing everything, including how America votes

Election workers Mark Bezanson, left, and Julie Olson dump ballots collected earlier in the day from drop boxes onto a table for sorting at the King County Elections office, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Renton, Wash. Voters in Washington all vote only by mail. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Election workers Mark Bezanson, left, and Julie Olson dump ballots collected earlier in the day from drop boxes onto a table for sorting at the King County Elections office, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Renton, Wash. Voters in Washington all vote only by mail. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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Despite widespread disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic, the November 3 election will still take place. What is less clear is how states will prepare for that day.

Seven months may seem like a long time for the nation to recover. But top public health officials have warned that COVID-19 may be cyclical, which could potentially mean another outbreak as Americans are getting ready to go to the polls.

"November will happen," said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. Without some extraordinary intervention by Congress, the date of a federal general election cannot be changed.

"The election will be held, so it's incumbent on states to do everything they can to make sure that November is a successful election," Becker continued. "The question is do they have the resources necessary?"

Already, 11 states and Puerto Rico have rescheduled their primaries. Those states are Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

State officials are scrambling to conduct elections while trying not to jeopardize public health. In the meantime, they're facing unprecedented challenges, including a shortage of poll workers, unavailable polling locations, limited supplies to keep sites sanitary and increased demand for absentee ballots.

While some lawmakers in Washington have called on states to stand up a system by November that would give everyone a vote-by-mail option, the short timeline and different capabilities across the states could make that impossible.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) appealed to Congress to provide states with "flexible funding" to ensure they can meet the specific needs of their voting systems.

"There is no one size fits all approach, but instead a 50-state solution," wrote the president and president-elect of NASS. "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."

Under the Senate-approved stimulus package, lawmakers in Washington have offered states $400 million in election assistance to secure the process in the wake of the pandemic.

The amount was far less than the $4 billion initially requested by House Democrats. It was also less than the $2 billion recommended by the Brennan Center for Justice to help states prepare for the 2020 elections amid the pandemic.

To ensure anyone who wanted to could vote by mail, states would require up to $1.4 billion, according to the Brennan Center report published last week. That system would include the infrastructure to print, track, store and count the ballots plus a sizeable investment in the U.S. Postal Service to cover deliveries and returns.

The report estimated it would cost an additional $270 million to ensure in-person voting was an option and that polling sites met public health standards. Additional funding would also be required to educate voters on their options to vote in new ways and to bolster online registration.

"States need to make critical investments in their election infrastructure," said Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections at the nonpartisan group Common Cause. She said the $400 million in the stimulus package was a "step in the right direction" but not enough.

"What is important that we establish a system where people can feel safe about exercising their right to vote," Albert said. She added that means having numerous options available to voters.


The coronavirus scare has already led more voters to avoid crowded polling places and vote by mail. States that held their primaries this month generally reported a larger volume of early and absentee ballots.

There are only five states that conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

All states and territories allow for absentee voting but 19 states require voters to have an excuse for requesting an absentee ballot. 28 plus the District of Columbia allow any qualified voter to vote absentee without an excuse.

Those varying policies mean states have varying capabilities to handle a huge influx of absentee ballot requests.

In Ohio, the problem of switching to vote-by-mail is playing out in realtime.

After Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the March 17 primary to be postponed, the Ohio Legislature got to work on allowing residents to cast their primary ballots entirely by mail.

The bill, which DeWine is expected to sign shortly, would give voters until April 28 to request and then mail in their ballots. Every registered voter would receive a postcard by the second week of April notifying them of how they can obtain an absentee ballot. They must request that ballot, then return it, postmarked no later than April 28.

Voting rights groups said the timeframe was "unacceptable" and "unworkable." They also criticized the legislation for requiring voters to pay for postage.


Other complications have arisen because of the time it takes for states with less developed systems to process mail-in ballots.

In it's March 10 primary, Michigan, a battleground state, saw nearly twice as many requests for absentee ballots compared to 2016. In part because of virus fears and also because of a new law allowing Michiganders to vote absentee without providing a reason.

However, because the state currently doesn't allow election officials to verify, open and count absentee ballots until polls open on Election Day, the late start led to delays in the final primary vote count.

Delays in the primary results were inconvenient, but extensive delays in reporting during the general election could be "delegitimizing," wrote Matthew Weil, the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Elections Project.

Other states also have laws that prevent ballot counters from starting the involved process of confirming a voter's eligibility and processing the vote until Election Day. "Though this delay may seem merely administrative, it will likely delay the public’s ability to know the winner of the election," Weil said.

Another battleground state, Pennsylvania passed an emergency bill Wednesday postponing the April 28 primary until June 2 and giving election officials slightly more time to process absentee ballots.

Previously, Pennsylvania required poll workers to wait until 8 p.m. on Election Day to open and count absentee ballots. The new allows lets them begin the count at 7 a.m. Considering the expected rise in absentee voting, there are concerns that it could take days to call the election.

Considering all the circumstances, voters to be patient during this year's election, Becker urged, suggesting it might take longer than normal to call the race in certain states.

"It's also true that losing candidates have used the extended time that it takes to count all of the ballots as a way to diminish voter confidence in the outcome," Becker said.

"That's unfortunate," he said, noting it plays into the hands of America's adversaries in Russia and elsewhere "who are trying to get us to lose confidence in the outcomes."

Ahead of what could be a confusing election, voters should stay tuned to possible changes in their state, including registration changes, options to vote by mail or new polling locations.

Given the shortage of poll workers, those who are able are also encouraged to sign up and can find out more from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

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