Lead Article: State Responses to Coronavirus and Elections
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has shifted the 2020 election landscape in large and previously unexpected ways. Postponing an election may have seemed unthinkable in February, but it’s now the new normal: As of March 30, 15 states have postponed presidential preference primaries, state primaries, runoffs or a combination of these—and we expect more delays to follow.
This month, we’re all about the practicalities of running an election during a global pandemic. We’ve rounded up examples of what states and election officials are doing across the nation to ensure elections are free, fair and safe.
While many legislative sessions have been adjourned, suspended or postponed due to public health concerns, those still in session are busy responding to the pandemic. And state executives and election officials are also taking steps to safely run our elections.
Of course, there’s no “one size fits all” solution to the election challenges caused by the coronavirus outbreak, and we detail the most popular options below.
Delaying Primary Elections
Several states have moved their March, April and May primaries to protect voters, poll workers and election officials; others with upcoming elections are likely considering this option, too.
Many of the postponed presidential preference and state primary elections are slated for June 2, which—with at least 12 presidential preference primaries and nine state primaries—is now set to be a second Super Tuesday. Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas have opted to push their state primaries and runoffs even further into the summer.
Postponements buy states time to make changes and avoid what may be the worst of the pandemic, but they still need to make plans for the eventual election—including any public health accommodations.
Encouraging Absentee Voting
Because in-person voting currently poses health risks, especially to older or immunocompromised individuals, many states are urging voters to request absentee ballots under existing laws and procedures. Thirty-three states allow no-excuse absentee voting, but voters may not know they have that option. State election officials, such as those in Wisconsin, have issued public reminders to help raise awareness of this option, and both Georgia and Michigan have decided to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters for their upcoming primaries (May 19 and May 5, respectively).
Some states require absentee ballots to be requested by mail or in-person at a local election official’s office. However, with experts advising everyone to stay home as much as possible now, web portals may offer greater access to voters. Idaho just became the 11th state to open an online absentee ballot request website.
Even states in which voters must provide a reason to vote absentee can issue guidance on whether coronavirus counts as a valid excuse (though it seems unlikely any official would reject that excuse given current circumstances). Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, for example, stressed, “Amid coronavirus concerns, it is important to remember that Alabamians who are concerned about contracting or spreading an illness have the opportunity to avoid the polls on Election Day by casting an absentee ballot.”
But no voting method seems risk-free these days: Washington state officials warned voters not to lick mail-in ballot envelopes to avoid transmission of the virus. Fortunately, the CDC does not believe licking envelopes or handling paper ballots pose significant risk to voters. Still, election officials may want to suggest alternative methods for sealing envelopes (such as a sponge or wet cloth) and remind voters of the importance of hand hygiene.
Transitioning to All-Mail Voting
Shifting to vote-by-mail—whether as a permanent change or temporary solution—has gained momentum as a fix to the current public health crisis’ effect on elections. With this option, all registered voters would be sent a ballot in the mail, no application (or excuse) required.
In Pennsylvania, pending legislation would authorize all-mail voting, and the New Jersey governor has called for the same. Legislation in New York and Alaska would also direct certain elections to be conducted by mail, and Massachusetts has enacted legislation extending mail voting options to municipalities.
On the federal level, Congress has passed The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). This stimulus package will provide $400 million to states to prepare for and respond to the pandemic’s disruption of the 2020 election cycle—including promoting mail voting. States must go through a grant process to receive the funds. According to NCSL’s Senior Federal Affairs Counsel, Susan Frederick, it will be difficult for states to obtain subsequent election funding.
But implementing all-mail voting is a massive undertaking. For context, it took Washington state five years to transition from all counties being permitted to adopt all-mail voting to statewide all-mail voting.
Some states, therefore, are trying all-mail voting on a smaller scale. Maryland will hold an all-mail special election to fill the late Representative Elijah Cummings’s seat on April 28, and New Jersey’s rescheduled municipal elections will be conducted exclusively by mail.
Adjusting In-Person Voting
Despite the interest in more mail voting, in-person voting is not going away anytime soon.
So, what precautions can election officials take to make polling places and in-person voting safer?
Across the country, election officials are moving polling places away from retirement communities, senior care facilities and nursing homes in an effort to protect seniors from the virus.
Poll workers can disinfect booths and voting machines after each cast vote, provide hand sanitizer and encourage those waiting in line to maintain a social distance of six feet. But all things in moderation—too much hand sanitizer can clog ballot machines, as New Hampshire discovered.
Speaking of poll workers—they might be hard to find. Since poll workers are often retired seniors and that population is particularly vulnerable to the virus, many are choosing to stay home away from crowds. Recruiting young workers—including those under 18—may be more important than ever.
We don’t yet know how the rest of the primary season will unfold, what solutions will work, or whether later elections—perhaps even the November general election—will be affected. As states continue to respond to the coronavirus threat, NCSL will continue to track those actions.
Legislative Action Bulletin
- As of March 30, 26 legislatures have postponed their legislative sessions due to COVID-19.
- Six states are currently in regular session, along with D.C., Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
- Missouri is the only legislature in technical session.
- Four states are not in session in 2020: Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.
Legislators in states still in session have elections on their minds even in the midst of a public health emergency and are introducing bills to deal with a rapidly changing and uncertain landscape. Some examples:
- Massachusetts enacted a bill granting the state the authority to postpone municipal elections and also expands absentee and mail voting options for those elections.
- Colorado enacted a bill extending deadlines related to ballot access requirements for 2020 and also allows remote participation in party assemblies and conventions.
- Pennsylvania enacted a bill postponing the state's general primary election until June 2.
- Legislation in Alabama would allow the governor to suspend or delay elections during a state of emergency.
- Legislation in Alaska would authorize the state to direct that any primary or special election in 2020 be conducted by mail.
- Legislation in New Jersey would extend petition filing deadlines for all candidates in the 2020 primary election.
From the Chair
This month we spoke with New Mexico Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D). Ortiz y Pino represents District 12, which covers central Albuquerque, the Land of Enchantment’s largest city. He has served as a senator since 2005 and is the current chair of the Senate Committee on Public Affairs.
How did you get selected to chair the Senate Committee on Public Affairs, which covers local elections?
I was first elected in 2005, and the very first committee assignments I was given were Public Affairs and Rules. Each of those committees deals with elections generally, and I saw this as an opportunity to learn about an important area of public policy.
Could you tell me about the major election administration priorities for you and New Mexico?
For me, it’s improving voter turnout. Low turnout is a national dilemma, and in New Mexico our turnout rarely approaches 60%. That means 40% of people aren’t even voicing their opinion on the outcome of these elections. I advocate for anything that will increase voter turnout, including voter education. We all do better when there’s heavier turnout.
We also need to maintain security of the election process. We cannot expose ourselves to someone who could play games with our voting.
Could you say more about what New Mexico is doing to address election security and cybersecurity concerns?
About two or three years into my time in the Senate, our state went to a paper ballot. There have been a lot of concerns about how electronic voting systems expose us to issues like rigging and stealing elections. With our new system, the vote is cast on a paper ballot. It’s counted on a machine, but a paper copy is maintained. So, if there is any question about the vote, we can look at that paper copy, and we retain that paper ballot all the way through the process. It’s a much safer system when we have an auditable paper trail.
Another hotly contested election security issue is voter identification. While Republicans encourage people to be hyper vigilant about who should and should not be voting, Democrats try to ensure that people who can vote are not turned away from the polls. That tension has played out in our state.
Fortunately, there is no real evidence of people voting who shouldn’t. In our system, when you register to vote, you prove who you are and that information is saved electronically by the secretary of state. That means there’s no need to show an ID when casting a vote as long as you can provide the last four digits of your Social Security number. Once you’ve proved that you are eligible to vote, you no longer have to keep proving that. Concerns about voter fraud still crop up regularly, but each time with a little less ferocity.
I’m also thankful that our current secretary of state works hard to stay on the cutting edge of election security issues, as well as what we can do to make voting easier. She’s a former county clerk, so she knows what we’re capable of changing and what we aren’t.
New Mexico joined the National Popular Vote Compact in 2019. What are your thoughts on that decision?
I support it. Some of us who voted for it got attacked, though. Others believe that because New Mexico is a small state, the Electoral College enhances its power in elections. I don’t think there’s evidence of that. New Mexico only has five electoral votes; we’re not going to make a huge difference one way or the other. But I do think we’re all better off when the president is elected by the majority of the people in our country, not by a system that gives a weighted advantage to some states over others.
Do you have any thoughts on how New Mexico might use its 2020 infusion of Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding?
Although I haven’t yet seen what the secretary of state is proposing to do with our HAVA funds, my thought is that we really need to expand vote centers in rural communities. Some people drive 40 or 50 miles to a voting center, and then they still stand in line to vote.
I’d also like to see us stay on top of the latest advances in cybersecurity and expand our voter education efforts. For example, most felons assume they can’t vote in New Mexico, but most felons who have completed their sentences can vote here—they just don’t know that. We have to develop additional outreach to educate voters about things such as rule changes and how to regain voting rights.
State Election Landscapes: The Great Lakes
Find a wealth of materials about election administration in this new resource from the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. State Election Landscapes provides comprehensive information on elections in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, including neat visualizations and useful state-by-state analyses. As a Minnesota native, I (Mandy) particularly enjoyed learning that my home state had the highest turnout rate in 2016: 75%. By using the maps, I could also investigate my home county—Jackson County—to see its turnout rate went up between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections and that in-person voting remains the most popular option—fascinating!
EAC to Allow HAVA Funds for Coronavirus Response
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) announced states may use Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds for disinfection supplies, cleaning products and masks provided the costs are both reasonable and allocable. For more information, see the EAC’s coronavirus resources.
Wyoming Authorizes Tribal IDs for Voter Registration
Wyoming passed a bill clarifying tribal IDs as an acceptable form of identification for voter registration, provided the ID includes the voter’s driver’s license number or the final four digits of their Social Security number. (Wyoming does not require an ID at the time of voting.) The bill was prompted by some poll workers’ confusion during the 2018 midterms about whether they could accept tribal IDs and received bipartisan support.
Tennessee Voting Disrupted by Tornadoes
In response to the tornadoes that hit the night before Super Tuesday—leaving some roads blocked and polling places without power—Tennessee election officials were forced into emergency mode, diverting voters to alternative locations and opening some polling stations one hour late.
Texas Joins ERIC
Texas became the 30th state to join the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). ERIC’s mission is to assist states to increase voter participation and improve the accuracy of America's voter rolls.
First State Legislative Primaries on Super Tuesday, Others Rescheduled
In addition to participating in presidential preference primaries, voters in Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina and Texas weighed in on legislative races on Super Tuesday—March 3. Those races mark the start of the state primary season, though the calendar has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, prompting at least 15 states to postpone presidential preference or state primaries and resulting in a second Super Tuesday on June 2.
Kentucky Voter ID Bill
The Kentucky legislature has sent the governor a bill, SB 2, to enact a strict photo voter ID requirement. Right now, voters only need to show some form of identification if a poll worker does not recognize them. The bill’s Republican sponsors hope that requiring photo identification will prevent in-person voter fraud, but whether the Democratic governor will sign it remains unclear.
User Error Prevents Kansas City Mayor From Voting
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas was turned away from his regular polling place when a poll worker inadvertently switched the mayor’s first and last names, resulting in Lucas not being found in the system. Human errors happen, and when they do, voters can cast a provisional ballot. The mayor was able to return and cast his ballot later on Election Day.
Monthly Dose of Cybersecurity
The Florida legislature unanimously adopted two new cybersecurity bills. House Bill 821 requires the state to designate a chief information security officer, update a statewide IT security strategic plan, and collaborate with the state’s Department of Law Enforcement’s Cybercrime Office. Senate Bill 538 will require the state to create a list of cybersecurity incidents (county and municipal officials must report cyberattacks to the Department of Emergency Management) and to publish it annually.
States Encourage Absentee Voting Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic
Election officials in various states—including Alabama, Idaho, and Wisconsin—have urged voters to request absentee ballots in lieu of voting in-person at public polling places due to potential public health risks. Additionally, Georgia and Michigan have decided to mail all voters absentee ballot applications for their upcoming primaries (May 19 and May 5, respectively). As some states turn to mail-in ballot options, Congress will also consider legislation expanding vote-by-mail and absentee voting.
Need a Break? Listen to NCSL’s Podcast, “Building Democracy: The Story of Legislatures”
NCSL’s new podcast, “Building Democracy: The Story of Legislatures,” covers the history, characters and stories of state legislatures in America, from the beginnings in Jamestown, Va., to the present and into the future. Listen to legislative and historical experts discuss the events that have shaped—and in some cases derailed—the legislatures we know today.
From the NCSL Elections Team
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, NCSL has transitioned to remote work. However, we will continue to operate and communicate at full capacity, answering research requests, working on projects and providing remote testimony and assistance.
Please reach out with any election news, updates or questions, and remember that we’re here to help during these uncertain times.
Wendy Underhill, Brian Hinkle and Mandy Zoch