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The Canvass | August 2020

August 1, 2020

Lead Article: Polling Places: Critical and Scarce

Where’s my polling place? That’s the last thing any election official wants a voter to wonder on Election Day.

Even though voters aren’t thinking about that yet, local election officials are. They're working to find sites that are willing to host a polling operation and that are free or low cost, ADA compliant and convenient for voters. Finding such sites is a perennial problem, and it’s made harder this year by COVID-19, which has already caused some locations—schools, long-term care facilities, community buildings—to opt out of hosting polling places.

While many voters may use mail or absentee ballots this November, as record numbers did during the primary season, voters will still need safe and accessible in-person voting locations.

This year’s unusual circumstances have spurred clever solutions. So far, three NBA teams have offered their arenas as polling places because they are large enough to accommodate social distancing for voters from many precincts, and they may even be a draw for voters who’d like to see their home court up close. Others have encouraged big box retailers to step up, and some election officials are getting creative, expanding the concept of “polling place” to include parking lots where voters wait in line in their cars to cast ballots. Even so, for many jurisdictions, finding a polling location is like finding a wedding venue—not impossible, but fraught.

State law dictates what facilities can and cannot be used, so now is the perfect time to review what your state’s statutes say about polling places.

What can policymakers do to help secure polling places? They can start by talking with state or local election officials to find out what their concerns are and whether current statutes are adequate for their needs—or exacerbating their worries.

To learn what’s going on in your area, here are some questions you might ask state or local election officials:

How do you find suitable polling places?

Polling places must be located close to the voters who will use them (the Center for Inclusive Democracy’s Voting Location Siting Tool can help), and they need to be accessible for all voters. Fortunately more and more buildings are ADA compliant, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission outlines temporary solutions to make buildings more accessible. Polling places should also have adequate parking, clear entrance and exist routes and—this year, at least—enough interior space to ensure that voters can socially distance while waiting in line and casting their ballots. Ten states restrict polling places based on proximity to alcohol-selling establishments, which may limit options. And if outdoor venues are used this year, election officials will have to add meteorology to their job descriptions and predict the weather.

Meeting those basic requirements may be all that election officials can do, but it could be worth considering the visibility and aesthetics of a polling place, too. New research shows that polling places with high visibility and high-quality interior space are associated with increased turnout.

What issues do you have in getting enough polling places?

Thirty-five states mandate using public buildings as polling places when practicable, but due to the pandemic, many of those spaces—such as libraries—may remain closed to the public and unavailable for the general election. Poll worker shortages, too, affect the number of polling places that can operate during the election.

Are schools willing to serve—and are the kids attending on Election Day or are the schools child-free that day?

Twenty-three states specifically mention using schools as polling locations. Although K-12 schools may have many desirable qualities for use as polling locations, safety concerns have caused a slow move away from using them while children are in class. Currently, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island and Tennessee require that schools be closed when used as polling places. Four other states—California, Illinois, New Mexico and North Dakota—encourage schools to be closed, and three—Arizona, Georgia and New Jersey—say that when schools are used as polling places, elections cannot interfere with normal school functions. Of course, many schools may be online this year or operating in a hybrid format, leaving school buildings more available for election officials.

Are there regulations about college and university campuses?

Only California and Colorado require or encourage the placement of polling places on college or university campuses. California Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D) sponsored AB 59, which encourages election officials to place vote centers on college or university campuses. Noting that turnout is lower among young people, he said, “We need to get creative about how we bring democracy to our young voters.” Although these locations may be less pivotal this year, with so many schools choosing to move classes online, Kalra added that many community colleges may be in the middle of neighborhoods or densely populated communities, making them good contenders for vote centers even if students aren’t in session.

Are senior living facilities willing to serve—or are they all off the table this year?

Senior living facilities may not be willing to host polling places as they have in the past because their residents have higher risks of complications from the virus. During the primaries, several states moved polling places away from senior living facilities and nursing homes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends relocating polling locations from long-term care and senior living facilities “to help protect older adults and those with underlying medical conditions from potential COVID-19 exposure.”

Do you pay the facility a fee, and is this a significant budgetary consideration?

With states and many municipalities facing major budget shortfalls, cost matters more than ever.

Are there possibilities for curbside or drive-through voting?

To make voting accessible, many states offer curbside or drive-through voting to those who cannot access the voting area due to physical limitations. Some states expanded this option during the primaries. In Utah, for example, legislators passed HB 3006, which eliminated in-person voting for the primary and gave counties the option to offer mobile voting. Utah Representative Jefferson Moss (R), the bill’s sponsor, said, “When I came on board it [the bill] was 100% vote by mail, no provisions for the last-minute voter.” He credited local election officials for the inclusion of a safe, in-person option and stressed, “Covid has been horrible, but we are finding a lot more innovative ways to do things.”

Do officials use one location for several precincts (consolidated precincts) or vote centers? Do they wish they could?

A consolidated polling place serves more than one precinct at a single location, and vote centers are locations where all voters within a jurisdiction can vote, regardless of their residential address. Sixteen states allow jurisdictions to use vote centers on Election Day; additional states may permit the use of vote centers during the early voting period. In 2020, Alabama passed a bill allowing Marion County to use vote centers.

Legislative Action Bulletin

Most legislatures have now adjourned or begun to wind down their sessions. We can expect more legislatures than usual to go into special session at some point this year to address budgets and other COVID-related concerns. Legislatures that remain in session continue to focus on absentee and mail voting as the election is now fewer than 100 days away.

Notable bills include:

Legislation awaiting the governor’s signature in Connecticut would add COVID-19 as a qualifying excuse to vote absentee for elections in 2020.

Delaware and Massachusetts each enacted legislation requiring the state to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters for elections in 2020.

Legislation introduced in New Jersey would allow ballots postmarked on Election Day to be received up to seven days post-election and would provide voters the opportunity to fix signature deficiencies on absentee/mail ballots.

New Mexico enacted legislation authorizing county clerks to mail ballot applications to voters if they choose for the 2020 general election.

Legislation awaiting the governor’s signature in New York would establish a process for automatic voter registration. Bills addressing absentee ballot requestsearly voting and ballot postmarks are also on the governor’s desk.

Rhode Island enacted legislation that will permit emergency mail ballot applications to be processed in person at a voter’s local board of canvassers, allowing a voter to then cast a ballot on site.

Legislation became law without the governor’s signature in Vermont, which allows the Secretary of State to order 2020 elections to be conducted by mail. Secretary Condos has already announced his intention to do so for the November election.

From the Chair

This month we spoke with Maine Senator Louis Luchini (D). He represents District 7, which is located along Maine’s eastern coast. He has held this seat since 2018 and previously served in the Maine House of Representatives from 2010-2018.

How did you get selected to co-chair the Joint Committee on Legal and Veterans Affairs?

I’ve chaired the committee now for about eight years, but it started in my second term in the House. The committee covers a broad swatch of topics—veterans issues, elections, campaign finance, alcohol and now marijuana—and when the speaker asked me to chair it, we were looking at some big issues. We were just coming off a legislature that had repealed Maine’s longstanding same-day voter registration law, but the public filed a people’s veto, and Maine voters overwhelmingly voted to reinstate that law.

What are the major election administration priorities for you and Maine?

Our goals are to ensure Maine’s elections are accessible and secure. Our state has locally based elections, which means there are over 500 municipalities where people can vote, and we have a great partnership between the secretary of state and local election clerks to facilitate that.

We’re always looking for ways to improve election laws, though. In particular, we’re preparing to implement automatic voter registration (AVR) using REAL ID in our motor vehicles segment. Our committee worked closely with the Brennan Center for Justice to craft a bill that worked really well for Maine, and the goal is to improve access to voting and registration, clean up voter rolls and make government more efficient by streamlining the process. With AVR, we’ll save time and money.

How have those election priorities changed with the coronavirus pandemic?

Obviously the pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of life—elections are no different. Our fundamental goals remain the same—ensuring voting is accessible and secure. We also want to make sure it’s a safe process for voters, election officials and poll workers.

The governor delayed the primary from June to July, which gave us a little more time to track the course of the virus. Sitting just north of the hotbeds in New York and New Jersey, we wanted to be cautious. Now we’re in the process of receiving comments from stakeholders to see what we did right and what we need to improve.

The biggest change because of the pandemic was a big push for voters to use no-excuse absentee voting. In the primary, 80% of people voted by absentee ballot. We also made sure each polling place was safe and helped provide drop boxes at each polling place, so voters had the option of no-contact absentee ballot return.

Maine will be the first state to use ranked choice voting (RCV) in a presidential election. What’s your perspective on the transition to RCV and how do you think it will affect the general election in November?

RCV was a citizen initiative, and it won at the ballot a couple of times. We don’t use it in our state elections (governor, state house seats, etc.) because it conflicts with the state constitution, but we did just use it in the congressional primary. It’s new, so there are still some hiccups with the administrative process, but our secretary of state studied up and worked hard to centralize the ballots—that process is getting faster each time they do it.

It’s popular among the voters, and this November we’ll see how it goes.

Do you know how Maine will use its CARES Act money for elections? Will the 20% match be a hitch?

We applied for the maximum amount (just under $3.3 million). The 20% match could be a hitch—Maine, like every other state in the country, is facing extremely difficult economic conditions because of the pandemic.

We’re in the process of analyzing the July primary, and that will dictate how we spend the CARES Act money this November. Our major priorities in the letter to the feds were printing and distributing absentee ballots, leasing additional tabulation machines to help municipalities process ballots faster, providing more drop boxes and protecting election workers by purchasing personal protection equipment, face shields, hand sanitizer, plexiglass barriers, ample pens and more. We’re also considering covering return postage for absentee ballots.

What aspect of Maine’s elections are you most proud of?

I think the biggest thing that I’m proud of, that a lot of us are proud of, is that Maine annually ranks among the top states for voter turnout. In presidential election years, our turnout is often over 70%. I’m proud that Mainers are civically engaged and turn out for elections. That’s a testament to our election laws and the great partnership between the secretary of state and the city clerks.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting"

A new report from the Brookings Institution and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School explores a fascinating idea: universal voting. “Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting” proposes that America could improve its democracy and reduce partisanship by making voting a required civic duty (similar to jury duty). Today, 26 countries have some form of universal civic duty voting. The Boston Globe and The New York Times both have pieces discussing the report. If you’d like to learn more, you can contact the Ash Center’s Miles Rapoport at

Worth Noting

Supreme Court Declines to Intervene in Voting Rights Disputes

In four recent cases, beginning with an emergency ruling in April on the night before Wisconsin’s primary, the nation’s highest court has refused to make changes to election rules. Following the Wisconsin decision, the justices also rejected requests from parties in Texas and Alabama seeking to ease voting restrictions in light of the pandemic. Most recently, the court upheld an order from the 11th Circuit temporarily blocking an expansion of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people in Florida.

Texas Governor Extends Early Voting

In response to concerns about the coronavirus, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) announced an extension of the early voting period in November. Early voting will now begin on Oct. 13. The state will also allow eligible mail-in voters more time to return their ballots in person. Texas has declined to expand excuses to qualify for absentee voting to include COVID-related concerns.

Should States Provide Prepaid Postage for Mail Ballots?

Traditionally, voters have been required to provide their own postage to return election mail, including ballots. Now that the pandemic has focused more attention on mail voting, some groups are making the argument that requiring voters to provide postage amounts to a poll tax. Officials in South Carolina recently agreed to provide prepaid postage in response to a lawsuit. Currently, 17 states have laws that require local officials to provide prepaid postage for mail ballots.

EAC and CIS Announce Partnership

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission and The Center for Internet Security have announced a partnership on a pilot program, “Rapid Architecture-Based Election Technology Verification,” or RABET-V. The program will focus on voting technology including electronic pollbooks, election night reporting systems, electronic ballot delivery and other nonvoting systems—basically all the elections tech that is outside the vote-casting and -counting sphere.

Monthly Cybersecurity Update

A new report published by Area 1 Security, “Phishing Election Administrators,” found that more than half of U.S. election officials remain vulnerable to email-based security threats. Area 1 found that 666 out of 10,000 election workers use personal email accounts. It also reports that 53% of election officials have only “rudimentary or nonstandard” technologies to protect from phishing.

How to Vote in Every State 2020

MediaWise, a nonprofit and nonpartisan project from the Poynter Institute, has launched a new YouTube channel: How to Vote in Every State 2020. The project aims to simplify access to voting rules, which vary from state to state. Information is available on a number of topics ranging from voter registration to finding your polling place.

Mail Ballot Watch

The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project has created a series tracking the percentage of mail ballots cast in the primary elections. The graphs compare the mail ballot usage in 2016 and 2020 primaries. Although the data is still being gathered, this graphic offers a handy visualization of how mail ballots have increased over the past four years and in response to COVID-19.

Celebrating Women’s Suffrage

Aug. 18, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote and affirms that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

From the NCSL Elections Team

The NCSL Elections Team remains available to assist our members with any and all election-related topics, in addition to redistricting, the census, campaign finance and ballot measures. We are continuing our bimonthly Office Hours during which you can join us for a friendly conversation and ask questions of our experts. Office Hours are held at 3 p.m. ET/1 p.m. MT on the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

In addition, we have four virtual meetings coming up in the next two months. They'll cover lessons learned from the primaries, absentee ballot processing, digital political ads and the intersection of money and free speech. We hope you'll join us.

If you have any questions or something we need to know, please get in touch.

—Wendy Underhill, Brian Hinkle and Mandy Zoch

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