WASHINGTON — States have begun reshaping election policies to expand access to mail-in voting.
Election officials in states with restrictive absentee requirements are looking for ways to allow as many voters as possible to use absentee ballots, a safer alternative to in-person voting in a global pandemic. If this crisis continues into November, however, some experts warn that a pivot to voting by mail could strain state resources and disenfranchise certain voters if not handled properly.
U.S. elections have been in flux since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio and Rhode Island all delayed their Democratic primaries. New York officials also are considering delaying that state’s April 28 primary.
But many states are taking their responses to COVID-19 further.
Voting by mail looks different in each state. While most states allow all voters to cast a mail-in ballot, 17 states restrict absentee voting to people who have disabilities, who are ill or who would be out of town on Election Day.
Several states have begun lifting restrictions on mail-in voting, opening the process to people who may have fears of exposure to the highly infectious virus.
Among them is Alabama, which postponed until July 14 its March 31 runoff in the Republican election for U.S. Senate. The July date would give officials time to process absentee ballots, and it’s the last day the state could hold an election without interrupting the November general election, according to Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill.
“That spreads out the work for them,” Merrill said in an interview, “enabling the voters more time to have their voices heard and votes counted.”
Alabama is one of the 17 with restrictions on absentee voting, normally requiring a voter be absent from their home county on Election Day, be ill or have a physical disability, have a job during voting hours or be a caregiver for a family member. But like his peers around the country, Merrill, a Republican, chose to allow any eligible voter in the state to vote absentee because of virus concerns.
Elections officials have made similar accommodations in Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, allowing all voters concerned about COVID-19 to request an absentee ballot.
“In light of the situation, we want to make sure this election is as free, fair and safe for all voters as we can,” said Jennifer Gardner, deputy press secretary of West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican. “We understand the health risk here, and we’re taking that very seriously.”
But not every state is lifting restrictions.
Some are going in the opposite direction: Kentucky’s GOP-dominated legislature last week passed a new voter ID law that goes into effect before the November election. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has not said whether he’ll sign the bill, but he has said he doesn’t want to make voting more difficult. Republicans have the numbers to override a veto.
In Missouri, which allows only voters who meet specific criteria to vote by mail, officials last week pushed the state’s municipal elections from April 7 to June 2. But Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft told Stateline that he is bound by state law and will not expand mail-in, absentee voting.
“This is not something I can change,” he said. “For certain election authorities, even if I could, which I cannot, they are not prepared and set up and able to do that well.”
Ashcroft will consult with local election officials and state lawmakers to determine whether to change state election laws before November. He said he’s willing to consider changes but doesn’t want to rush to solutions that could lead to unintended voting disruptions.
In other states with restrictions, there is a strong push to open the absentee process amid this emergency, including in Connecticut, Indiana and Rhode Island. And it’s not just states that have restrictions on mail-in voting. States such as Arizona, Idaho and Kansas, which don’t require an excuse to vote absentee, also are encouraging voters to cast mail-in ballots.
This renewed support for expanding absentee ballot access has encouraged officials at the Democratic National Committee, as the party continues to manage a presidential primary season that is slated to run through June. States need to take every precaution to make sure every voter can participate safely, said Ken Martin, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. That includes expanding mail-in voting.
“That’s a way that we can ensure that everyone can participate in the election without disenfranchising them or putting their personal safety in jeopardy,” said Martin, who also serves as the chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “No one should have to put their own health at risk by participating in democracy.”
Further, he hopes states will expand early voting so people can vote while social distancing, while also instituting automatic voter registration. The party, he said, also will support local election officials who need to make the tough choice of postponing a primary for the health of their voters.
After Ohio decided last Monday night to postpone its primary until June, election experts said states need a strong, worst-case-scenario contingency plan before November, and need to find the best way to transition to a voting system that more heavily relies on mail-in ballots.
States have a long to-do list: Figure out how many voters now use mail-in or in-person ballots. Buy paper and envelopes even as vendors could be delayed because of the pandemic emergency. Decide how to get ballots to voters. And process absentee ballots even as election staffers are teleworking.
“States are contemplating how they can realistically expand the options they provide voters in ways that maintain the infrastructure they have so they can process them appropriately,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor for the elections program at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation. “If you’re going to expand it, go big and do it right.”
Even in states that are used to mail-in voting, a flood of absentee ballot requests can stress a voting system. In Wisconsin, nearly 400,000 voters have requested mail-in ballots for the April 7 presidential primary, more than each of the last four spring elections. The Democratic Party has sued the state to extend absentee voting.
Luckily for states and counties around the country, Patrick said, there are best practices for registering voters, accommodating voters with disabilities, processing applications, and even designing envelopes.
But fully integrating an elevated vote-by-mail system takes years and a large investment, said Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for Orange County, Calif., which transitioned to its new system in 2019.
There were several lessons he learned along the way, including the need to double his ballot-scanning capacity and increase communication with voters about the changes. He also recently added “I Voted” stickers to mail-in ballots, which he said was one of the most popular things he’s done as registrar.
“(All of these elements) really changed the voters’ perception of having trust in the system,” Kelley said, “and having trust that the ballot is going to be handled and counted correctly.”
There are still some voters who don’t trust the mail service with their ballots. To address those concerns, some states and counties offer ballot tracking services — following the ballot from drop-off to delivery and processing at the local election administrator’s office.
Pasco County, Fla., a jurisdiction of 369,000 voters just north of Tampa, was the first in the state to offer a ballot tracking service — a response to voters concerned with their ballots getting lost in the mail, said Brian Corley, the county’s supervisor of elections.
“You have to have that confidence with dealing with voters,” he said. “It gives them that peace of mind.”
There are many elements of a mail-in ballot system that must be done carefully, said Whitney Quesenbery, director of the Center for Civic Design, which has worked with several election jurisdictions around the country.
“It needs to be done early; it needs to be done in an open way,” she said. “What comes out of that sausage-making process must be a system that protects voters and protects the system. We can’t compromise integrity and we can’t compromise access.
“We can’t leave our marginalized voters behind.”
A vote-by-mail system could disenfranchise certain groups, including those with lower incomes, residents of large apartment complexes with unreliable mail service and people on tribal reservations, said Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund.
Many Native Americans lack traditional addresses or home delivery, relying on a post office box that is rarely checked and often shared by several families. Further, several states, including Arizona and Montana, have criminalized mass ballot collecting, which voting rights groups often use during elections to help geographically isolated populations who might lack personal transportation.
“We’re very concerned that the virus is going to mean an increase in vote-by-mail,” she said, “and that’s going to disenfranchise Native Americans if accommodations are not made.”
Washington state, which runs its elections entirely by mail, sought to protect Native American voting rights by passing legislation last year that allows voters to use a tribally designated building as a residential pickup and drop-off location, De León said. Other experts argue there should be a strong in-person option for other voters who cannot vote by mail.
But any expansion of voting by mail must be secure, said Marian Schneider, president of the election security nonprofit Verified Voting.
“Remember,” she said, “we’re coming off the 2016 election, where we had an unprecedented attack on our election.”
Some members of Congress, meanwhile, have discussed legislation that would guarantee a mail-in ballot for every voter during a national emergency.
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced a bill last week that would expand early voting and provide resources for access to the ballot for voters with disabilities and recruit younger poll workers.
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