COVID-19 and Elections

4/2/2020

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NOTE: NCSL is monitoring the evolving situation with COVID-19 and the anticipated effect on elections. We will update this page regularly as we learn more. We welcome any input from election officials or members of the public. For more detailed information on state laws involving election emergencies generally, please visit NCSL Election Emergencies.

Introduction

Voters standing in line close to each other, handling ballots and using touch screens make for a potentially toxic stew of community transmission of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Election officials and policymakers are giving full attention to possible mitigation strategies. These include reviewing their state’s continuity of government constitutional provisions, continuity of legislatures during emergencies plans, election emergency statutes and election contingency plans at the state and local levels. On contingency planning, the National Association of Secretaries of State released State Laws & Practices for the Emergency Management of Elections in 2017.

The goal is to address both the practical and legal questions around running elections while also decreasing the potential for spreading the virus. Much of the responsibility lies with local jurisdictions or the executive branch. However, policymakers are thinking ahead as well. Legislation is just beginning to be introduced to address how elections can be well-executed even as public gatherings are discouraged in many locations. See the Legislative Action and the Executive Action sections on state responses to COVID-19 and elections, below Policy Options. 

Policy Options

As legislators work to ensure fair elections in times of public health emergencies, they may look for policy options. NCSL does not recommend legislative changes or provide opinions on policy options. Instead, we have gathered ideas that have surfaced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Review your state’s existing election emergency statutes. NCSL's Election Emergencies resource provides citations by state. In general, these laws either allow elections to be delayed or rescheduled, or for polling places to be relocated. Some explicitly give the governor the authority to change the election date. Most do not, yet governors are likely to have broad authority under general emergency management declarations which could include changing dates.
  • Some states request, or require, that local election authorities provide contingency plans to the state. The chief election officer may provide guidance to the local authorities.
  • Many states are planning for an increase in the use of absentee, or mail, ballots. In preparation, they may want to clarify how absentee voting works: Are requirements for witness signatures (in addition to the voter’s signature) required? What is the deadline for requesting a ballot, and does it need to be extended? When must completed ballots be received? When can ballot processing begin? States coud also review their capacity to tabulate larger numbers of absentee ballots, and more. See NCSL’s Voting Outside the Polling Place report, and particularly the section, Policy Decision Points.
  • In states where a voter must provide a reason to vote absentee, often there is a list of accepted reasons. This list could be expanded either through an interpretation of existing provisions that allow absentee voting for health reasons (Alabama's secretary of state has made it clear that anyone who has self-quarantined can apply for an absentee ballot), or through a legislative change to add a public health risk as an acceptable reason. See NCSL’s Voting Outside the Polling Place report, and particularly the section, Qualifying for an Absentee Ballot, to review accepted reasons for requesting an absentee ballot.   
  • When polling places are located in long term care facilities, moving them to locations with fewer vulnerable people may make sense. State laws often require that notice of polling place changes be provided two or three months in advance. Does this require a change in law, or can a relocation be done with emergency authority?
  • Review provisional ballot laws. It is possible that voters might not be able to get to their designated polling place but might turn up at an election office or polling place elsewhere in the state. Would a ballot voted for just the statewide or applicable races count?
  • Poll workers may not be as willing to serve due to health risks, which can make running an election more challenging. Moving to consolidated polling places—in which several precincts vote at the same location—or moving to vote centers—in which any voter from a jurisdiction can vote at any polling place, usually a larger facility—can reduce the total number of poll workers required.
  • In many states, people with disabilities have the option to use curbside voting; bipartisan teams of poll workers bring a ballot or ballot marking device to the car so the voter does not have to come inside. This option could be expanded.
  • Shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines may make it difficult to collect signatures for candidate and initiative petitions. States may consider expanding various ballot measure and candidate filing deadlines. 

Legislative Action

Legislatures have taken a number of steps to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and its effect on elections. We have captured these bills by topic, and below you will see three tables—bills relating to delaying elections, bills relating to absentee and mail voting and miscellaneous bills relating to public health and elections.

2020 Bills Relating to Delaying Elections

State

Bill Summary

Alabama

AL HB 419: Establishes Election Emergency Act, allowing for suspension or delay of election. Pending

Massachusetts

 

 

 

 

MA HD 4928: Expands powers of the Secretary of State over elections during emergencies, including the ability to postpone elections. Pending

 

MA SB 2608: Grants the state authority to postpone municipal elections and also expands voting options. Enacted

 

MA SB 2609: Postpones certain special elections in the state until May 19. Pending

Pennsylvania PA SB 422: Postpones the state's primary until June 2. Enacted
2020 Bills Relating to Absentee and Mail Voting

State

Bill Summary

Alaska AK SB 241: Authorizes the state to direct that any primary or special election in 2020 be conducted by mail. Awaiting Governor's Signature
Louisiana

LA HB 419: Authorizes voting by mail; it does not metion COVID-19 specifically but provides specific provisions for voters who are hospitalized. Pending

 

LA SB 497: Allows a voter to request their absentee ballot be rescinded in the event an election is delayed due to a declared state of emergency. Pending

New York

NY SB 8015: Authorizes voters to vote absentee due to concern for public health risk. Pending

 

NY AB 10169: Permits absentee voting in the event of a threat resulting from a disease outbreak. Pending

 

NY SB 8106: Extends absentee voting to all residents for all primaries or special elections occuring before June 24, 2020. Pending

 

NY SB 8120: Directs the state board of elections to create a plan to permit voting by mail. Pending

 

NY SB 8130: Permits electronic application for absentee ballots and removes the requirement that such application be signed by the voter. Pending

Ohio OH HB 197: Voids the previous order by the secretary of state moving the state primary election to June 2 and instead extends absentee voting through April 28, with no in-person voting except for a limited category of voters who need to use an accessible voting machine or cannot receive mail. Awaiting Governor's Signature
Pennsylvania PA HB 2367: Appropriates money for the purpose of providing mail ballots to all qualified voters for the 2020 primary and general elections. Pending
2020 Miscellaneous Bills Relating to Public Health and Elections

State

Bill Summary

Colorado CO HB 1359: Modifies party candidate designation requirements to accommodate public health concerns. Enacted

Kentucky

KY HB 351: Allows the Governor to declare by executive order a different time, place, or manner for holding elections during a state of emergency. Awaiting Governor's Signature

New Jersey NJ AB 3863: Extends petition filing deadlines by two weeks for all candidates and waives signature requirements for candidates for party office. Only applies to the 2020 primary election. Pending

New York

NY AB 10151: Shortens time frames related to petitions for the June 2020 primary election due to the coronavirus outbreak. Enacted

 

NY AB 10160: Decreases the number of signatures needed for candidate petitions in counties where COVID-19 cases have been confirmed. Pending

Executive Action

In addition to legislative action, states are also using executive action to adjust elections in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

2020 Executive Actions Relating to Public Health and Elections, Chronological

Date

State

Action

March 13

Louisiana 

Louisiana postponed its April 4 presidential primary until June 20.
March 14

Georgia

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that Georgia's March 24 presidential preference primary will be postponed until May 19.
March 16 Colorado Colorado's Governor issued an executive order, incorporating a bill passed by the legislature, to allow political parties to amend their rules relating to conventions and assemblies in order to limit in-person contact.
March 16 Kentucky Kentucky's Governor and Secretary of State made a joint announcement that the state's presidential primary, originally scheduled for May 19, will be delayed until June 23.
March 17 Maryland Maryland postponed its April 28 primary until June 2. The Governor's order also directed the State Board of Elections to conduct a special election to be held on April 28 entirely by mail.
March 18

Alabama

Alabama postponed its March 31 runoff election until July 14.
March 18 Missouri Missouri postponed all municipal elections in the state until June 2.
March 18

Oklahoma

The Oklahoma State Board of Elections declared an election emergency requiring counties to postpone local elections that were to be held on April 7. Additionally, the Secretary of State tolled the circulation period for initiative petitions; a new deadline for signatures will be calculated once the Governor lifts the emergency declaration.
March 18 Texas The Governor of Texas issued an executive order that allows local governments to suspend their elections until November.
March 19 Connecticut Connecticut postponed its April 28 presidential primary until June 2.
March 19 New Jersey New Jersey's Governor issued an executive order implementing various changes to state elections, including allowing online candidate petitions and requiring that certain municipal and local elections be conducted solely by mail.
March 20 Indiana Indiana postponed its May 5 primary until June 2.
March 20 Mississippi Mississippi postponed its state primary runoff election until June 23.
March 20 North Carolina The North Carolina State Board of Elections rescheduled their congressional primary runoff election to June 23.
March 20 Texas Texas postponed its state primary runoff election until July 14.
March 23 Rhode Island Rhode Island postponed its primary until June 2. The Governor's order also directs the Board of Elections to conduct the election predominantly by mail.
March 24 Delaware Delaware's Governor issued an executive order postponing the state's presidential primary until June 2 and directing municipalities to reschedule any elections set to be held before May 15. The Governor's order also expands the excuses under state law that a voter may use to qualify for absentee voting to include self-isolation or quarantine related to COVID-19.
March 24 Nevada Nevada's Secretary of State announced a plan to conduct the state's June 9 primary election entirely by mail.
March 26 North Dakota North Dakota's Governor issued an executive order implementing multiple changes to the state's election laws, including suspending the requirement that each county operate at least one polling place for in-person voting. The order directs state and local officials to take all necessary steps to conduct upcoming elections by mail.
March 26 Utah Utah's Governor issued an executive order suspending requirements relating to candidate petitions in order to allow campaigns to distribute petitions electronically and voters to return physically signed petitions by electronic means.
March 27 Michigan Michigan's Governor issued an executive order implementing multiple changes to the state's election laws, including ordering that the May 5 primary be conducted by absentee voting to the greatest extent possible.
March 28 New York New York postponed its presidential primary election until June 23. The Governor's order also postpones any special elections set for April 28 to June 23.
March 30 Maryland Maryland's Governor issued an executive order that allows municipalities to postpone their elections and also to alter the method, conduct, or voting system of an election.
April 1 West Virginia West Virginia postponed its primary election until June 9.
April 1 Utah Utah's Governor issued an executive order suspending requirements related to referendum petitions in order to allow campaigns to distribute petitions electronically and voters to return physically signed petitions by electronic means.

Blogs

The NCSL Elections Team will be posting regular blogs about coronavirus and its effect on elections. You can find these pieces on the NCSL Blog or below.

Additional Resources