OLYMPIA — Many people have bemoaned that Washington’s vote-by-mail elections don’t have the spirit of community that comes with residents gathering at poll stations.
But as the novel coronavirus outbreak explodes — and in a major U.S. election year, no less — Washington’s ultimate social distancing form of democracy is being looked at by others as a potential model.
The state’s vote-by-mail system — one of only five in the nation — has been generally touted as more secure against election hacking and its convenience as good for voter turnout.
Now, elections officials elsewhere are in contact with Washington as they explore vote-by-mail, or expansions of existing absentee balloting, to keep voters in their homes and minimize the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Some of the efforts are geared specifically to protect people most at risk to the virus, such as older people.
“Between Lori and I, we have talked to every one of the states and Puerto Rico,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman, referring to her elections director, Lori Augino.
The conversations come as the coronavirus pandemic, now claiming more than 6,000 lives in the United States, presents huge challenges to the nation’s elections officials.
At least a dozen states have postponed their presidential primaries, according to a briefing paper by the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). Three other states have postponed special elections for U.S. House or Senate seats.
Meanwhile, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would seek funding in the next coronavirus relief package to expand vote-by-mail in order to keep voters safe in the November general election, according to news reports.
Washington’s April 28 special election will still proceed, despite requests by Wyman and county elections officials that Gov. Jay Inslee postpone it. That election is relatively small, however, with only some counties holding votes on proposed levies and bonds. No candidates appear on the ballot.
While elections officials nationwide are generally prepared for disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes and fires happen regularly — the pandemic presents new risks and problems.
“I think it’s clear that this is a new experience for all of us, a new challenge,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate.
In response, three additional states are exploring or moving to vote-by-mail, according to Pate, the president of NASS. That includes Nevada, which last week announced it would hold its June state primary elections by mail.
Still, quickly adopting a vote-by-mail system brings daunting logistical questions, Wyman and Pate said. Among them:
Do elections officials have accurate lists of voters’ home addresses? Do their state’s laws provide enough time between the election and an official certification date to allow the counting of ballots? Can those states acquire the machinery — like high-speed ballot sorters and envelope openers? And can they scrape up a few million envelopes to mail out ballots?
“A lot of states thought they could just flip a switch,” said Wyman, who added she has been in close contact with elections officials in Nevada, New Jersey and Louisiana.
Elections officials are eyeing other possibilities, such as expanding existing absentee-ballot programs, to help keep voters home.
That’s one option for Louisiana, which is suffering one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19, and has postponed its primary election to June 20.
Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has been in contact with Wyman, and “we talked through various aspects of vote-by-mail options and some of the difficulties for a state like Louisiana to even be able to implement a vote-by-mail,” he said.
His state — which requires residents to have a legitimate reason to register for a mail ballot — currently sees less than 4% mailed ballots in its elections, said Ardoin.
Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, is being hit hard by the outbreak.
Ardoin said his office is sending mailers to 325,000 Louisiana residents who are 65 and older, urging them to use a mail ballot. And the state is looking at other options through emergency powers that could expand absentee balloting.
“But I’m not sure we can go to an all vote-by-mail program,” he said.
Ardoin said Louisiana is also planning to relocate any polling stations currently located at senior centers to further reduce the risk of coronavirus among the most vulnerable. And he continues to be in contact with Wyman, adding, “We’re leaning on her for advice and support.”
Meanwhile, some Washington elections officials still have concerns about how to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the April 28 special election. Even with Washington’s vote-by-mail system, elections offices must offer help to voters.
Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire has sent a letter to Inslee asking the governor to suspend several state laws. The concerns expressed include requirements his elections office be open to the public during the voting period, and that residents be allowed to register to vote in person.
“I am in a building that my County Commission has closed to the public,” wrote McGuire. He added, “Given the size and layout of my office, it is physically impossible for me to provide appropriate social distancing for my staff or the public.”