By Brian Hinkle
The election landscape has changed dramatically in the last few weeks as COVID-19 sweeps the nation.
As this is being published, at least 15 states have delayed their primary or runoff elections, and other states have ordered cities and counties to postpone upcoming local elections as well.
Now that many states have given themselves additional time before their spring elections, state legislatures that remain in session have begun puzzling out what voting in those elections—and potentially fall elections—will look like.
An increasing amount of attention is being given to absentee and mail voting as lawmakers and election officials reckon with what an election under shelter-in-place or similar orders might require. This discussion is also framed by longstanding partisan debates over issues such as election fraud and the fact that absentee ballots tend to have more errors than ballots voted in person, which leads to some ballots not being counted.
Bills have been introduced in at least five states that seek to expand absentee and mail voting in response to the current pandemic.
New York leads the way in terms of the number of bills introduced in recent weeks proposing to expand absentee voting. Pending legislation would expand the list of excuses to qualify for absentee voting to include concerns over public health risks. Another bill would extend the option of voting absentee to all residents for the upcoming primaries in June.
Far across the country, lawmakers in Alaska are contemplating whether to hold upcoming elections in their state entirely by mail.
Legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania that would send mail ballots to all registered voters for the 2020 primary and general elections.
While legislatures that are still convening strive to do their part—as of March 31, only six states remain in regular session—much of the response to the current public health crisis and elections has come from state executives.
Excepting Pennsylvania, every state that has postponed its primary has done so through executive order. Secretaries of state are also moving quickly; Georgia’s election chief has announced that the state will be sending out absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s 6.9 million registered voters.
It would be a fool’s errand to predict what the election in November will look like, but legislatures are working hard to cover their bases and be prepared for what comes next—whether it is establishing safe processes for in-person voting or extending absentee voting for more citizens. For more resources and information, please visit our COVID-19 and Elections page.
Brian Hinkle is the newest member of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting team.