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. (Find all original and rescheduled primary dates on NCSL 2020 State Primary Election Dates.)
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. Find more about these recent bills and others in this month’s Legislative Action Bulletin.
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. Find the most up-to-date information on NCSL COVID-19 and Elections.