WASHINGTON — The rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic has forced election officials to consider a sobering reality: The crisis could run headlong into November’s presidential election, and revamping America’s voting systems before then could be difficult and in some cases impossible.
Even as they postpone upcoming primaries, state and local officials are racing to find longer-term solutions to ensure that the public can safely vote on Nov. 3. While there is growing consensus that voting by mail is the safest way to cast ballots during a pandemic, implementing that system across the country is a huge undertaking that may not be possible, particularly in states where it is limited by law.
In the past week, elections officials have been swapping advice on what it would take: enormous orders of printed ballots and envelopes, high-speed scanners capable of counting the returns and in some cases constitutional amendments to lift restrictions on who may vote by mail — and hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for it all.
“The main thing we’ve discussed is how difficult it would be to go to vote-by-mail in a state where so few people do it,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, noting that only about 4% of voters in his state cast ballots by mail in the 2016 presidential contest. “It’s not something that you can turn around overnight.”
That has left voting advocates and political scientists sounding the alarm that states need immediate help from the federal government — or the prospect of a fair election in November is at risk.
This week’s chaotic primaries previewed what could come: Ohio canceled voting hours before voting was set to begin, the Phoenix area shuttered a third of its voting places, hundreds of scared poll workers called in sick in Florida and voters showed up to closed polls in Illinois.
On Friday, Indiana became the seventh state to push back its presidential primary because of the pandemic.
Neither the states nor the president have the power to delay November’s general election, a date set by Congress. But if the pandemic worsens and governors order residents to stay home, that could be tantamount to canceling the election if no other voting options are available.
“We have time to prepare, now, to ensure that these elections can take place, fairly, under any circumstances, and even if public health concerns prevent people from going to the polling booths to vote,” wrote more than 300 academics in an open letter to Congress. “In the entire history of the United States, there has never been a missed election.”
The group is urging Congress to establish national standards for preparing and modifying polling places, expanding early and mail-in voting, expanding online voter registration and educating voters.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a new version of a bill this week that would require mail-in balloting and early in-person voting to be offered in every state, and would provide hundreds of millions in assistance for states to implement the changes.
“This country has a great tradition of being able to move really quick when our values are on the line, and I don’t know what’s more valuable than the right to vote,” Wyden, whose state pioneered mail voting in 1998, said in an interview this week.
So far, however, Republicans have not indicated support for the bill.
Only five states in the nation — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — were set to conduct elections this year in which the vast majority of voters cast their ballots by mail. All of them have taken years to implement their programs, acquire the resources to distribute and count mail ballots on a large scale, and educate the public on how it works.
About two-thirds of states allow voters to cast their ballots by mail for any reason. But in most, only a small portion of the population chooses to do so.
Dramatically scaling up will be difficult, officials said.
Judd Choate, the elections director in Colorado, said he has received calls from counterparts in 11 states this week seeking advice on how to broaden their vote-by-mail programs.
“Everybody comes at it with the same question: ‘How can I get to a full vote-by-mail program by November?’ ” Choate said. “They are trying to pivot very quickly, to find out if it is even possible.”
The answer, Choate said, is probably no. “You’ve got to train thousands of people. You’ve got to completely change how people are doing this. And in some states it’s going to require a statutory change.”
Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said he anticipates that every jurisdiction in the nation will experience an uptick in mail-in voting this year as a result of the pandemic.
Hovland said he was scheduled to conduct a Zoom video conference call Friday with election officials in Washington, Orange County, California, and Weaver County, Utah — where all registered voters will receive ballots in the mail. He plans to record the call and make it available to other jurisdictions.
One major hurdle will be dealing with a variety of laws on the books that govern absentee ballots. Roughly a third of the states require a reason for voters to qualify for mail-in balloting — such as an illness or travel obligations.
Some states go even further. In the wake of a ballot-tampering scandal in 2018, North Carolina passed legislation requiring two witnesses to sign a ballot — and prohibiting third parties from delivering it. Lawmakers are reconsidering those rules given that many voters may be homebound or in quarantine as a result of the virus.
Florida requires ballot signatures to match a signature on file but doesn’t require giving voters an opportunity to fix a ballot if it is rejected.
In some states, officials said they worry about the threat of coercion if voters are filling out their ballots at home. Colorado solved that problem by allowing any voter to vote in person, an act that voids a mailed ballot.
Delaware’s elections commissioner, Anthony Albence, said his office would need additional resources to send out and then receive so many mailed ballots. But an even more significant barrier, he said, are constitutional and statutory limits on absentee and mail-in voting.
Jay Ashcroft, Missouri’s secretary of state, said legislative action, or a waiving of requirements by the governor or state Supreme Court, would be necessary to remove the need for an excuse.
“My ability to fix this alone is virtually zero,” he said.
Meanwhile, civil rights groups are concerned about another potential problem: that switching to an all-mail system could be so jarring to unaccustomed voters that some could wind up not participating.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas on Thursday advised the state to continue with in-person voting while expanding mail-in options, fearful that an all-mail election could “disenfranchise vulnerable and especially low-income communities,” said Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas.
Morgan Jackson, a Democratic political consultant in North Carolina, said transient students “don’t do a lot by mail” — and minority communities tend to vote disproportionately in person on Election Day.
“You’re talking about people who have had the vote denied to them for years, going back to the Jim Crow era,” Jackson said. “Now telling them they can’t vote in person and have to mail something in — that’s a real step.”
Some states, including Virginia, plan to expand voting by mail without eliminating in-person voting. They are looking at other ways to thin crowds and otherwise protect voters and poll workers on Election Day: recruiting younger people, such as students and teachers, to replace the generally older population that staffs precincts across the country; lengthening the period of in-person early voting; and stocking up on sanitizing supplies to avoid the shortages that plagued primaries in Arizona, Florida and Illinois this week.
Local officials are already getting creative. In Bristol, Virginia, a small city in the far southwestern corner of the state, election officials began offering in-person absentee voting Friday for the city’s May 5 municipal elections. Virginia requires a reason to allow in-person or mail-in absentee voting until July 1, when a new law goes into effect lifting that restriction. But Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has ordered all election officials to allow voters to use the pandemic as a reason.
Penny Limburg, Bristol’s general registrar, said they have used an old drive-through window in their building, which once housed a utility company, only sporadically in past elections when voters were unable to exit their cars, such as cancer patients with compromised immune systems. This year the window will be available to all voters, she said.
“I’m pleased we’ve been able to adjust and think it out,” she said, though she said the window, microphone and drawer are “old and glitchy.”
North Carolina will also look at eliminating the requirement that poll workers may only work in precincts in the county where they live. Expanding curbside voting, which is widely offered to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, is also being explored, but several election officials said it is slow and expensive because of how much manpower is needed.
In some states, officials are brainstorming ways to expand mail-in voting without mandating it for everyone. Several are looking at postage-paid envelopes as well as switching their style of envelope to feature a peel-off adhesive that eliminates the need for licking. And some that require voters to request a mail-in ballot in person or by mail are trying to allow such requests to be made online.
Some states are already claiming emergency authority to expand mail-in voting. West Virginia’s secretary of state, Mac Warner, said Wednesday that his office would “ramp up” absentee options for the state’s May 12 primary, following an advisory opinion from the state’s attorney general that alternative forms of balloting could be expanded during a state of emergency.
New York is also weighing a range of options, as elections officials there took note of Wyden’s bill. In an executive order over the weekend, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) made the “potential for contraction of the COVID-19 virus” count as a “temporary illness” authorizing absentee-ballot requests for elections on or before April 1.
Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute, said her organization had prepared volumes of guidance for states to build out vote-by-mail programs, stressing that states would not have to reinvent the wheel.
When she helped develop Colorado’s mail-ballot scheme as Denver’s director of elections in 2013, she borrowed ideas from Oregon and Washington about signature verification, she said.
“Voting should not be hard,” said Choate, the elections director in Colorado. “It should be easy, and we have the power to make it easy. If the one good outcome of this terrible event in our lives is that we can make voting easier for people around the country, then at least we’ve done one good thing.”