Among the many systems the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted, one in particular is clearly vital to the future of American democracy: the status of our elections.
A large number of electoral changes have emerged related to pandemic. To lower the risk of spreading COVID-19, the CDC suggests a wide variety of polling options, longer voting periods, and any other strategies that will reduce the number of people congregating indoors at one time.
Specific CDC recommendations include promoting behaviors that reduce spread, such as frequent handwashing, cloth face coverings, and social distancing; environmental factors such as disinfecting surfaces, ensuring ventilation, and modified layouts and procedures to manage lines and spacing; operational considerations such as alternatives voting options.
States have varied in their policy responses. The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking the bills that different states have introduced to respond to the pandemic’s effect on elections, including those that relate to delaying elections, offer additional voting mechanisms such as absentee and mail voting, or other public health considerations. South Dakota, for example, enacted SD HB 1298, to postpone all elections in the state held May-June 2020.
Many state legislatures have authorized any 2020 election to be conducted by mail. The governors of some states have also used their executive authority (expanded due to the declaration of a state of emergency) to postpone elections or to modify election procedures, including offering absentee ballots.
The National Association of State Election Directors offers a series of resources for elected officials to consider as they modify their election procedures, drawing from lessons learned from states like Oregon and Washington that have been offering all-mail elections for a long time. A shift of that magnitude, however, takes considerable planning—Washington state took five years to transition to statewide all-mail voting, overcoming hurdles such as post office approval, ballot printing and processing equipment, and accessibility for those without stable addresses.
Some voting changes, such as those in Alabama, only apply to qualified voters who have a physical illness or infirmity that prevents poll attendance. The Supreme Court recently ruled that Alabama’s ID and affidavit requirements for verifying absentee ballots are justified, striking down a lower court decision that blocked those requirements from being enforced.
This, and other electoral decisions related to the pandemic, may significantly affect not only citizen safety, but election results. Voters who are concerned about either personal or public health risk—who are more likely to be Democrats—will be less inclined to physically go to the polls, and that could influence turnout across parties.
Because of this, the rulemaking tends to fall along partisan lines similar to non-pandemic election-related policies, with Democrats wanting to ensure that voting can be flexible and open, and Republicans citing concern with voter fraud (despite little evidence of its existence). Even steps like all-mail voting may change turnout across demographics—Black Americans and those living on tribal lands, for example, are much less likely to have stable or official addresses, making mail voting participation more difficult; in addition, racial and ethnic minorities, young voters, and women are more likely to have the validity of their ballots challenged, due in part to limited information provided to help those groups understand the process.
While these partisan implications may impact how states choose to respond to the crisis, all can make use of the myriad resources available to ensure that all citizens are able to stay safe from the virus while exercising their fundamental electoral right.
2020 is already a high-stakes election year. And any COVID-related electoral changes could also remain beyond the pandemic, influencing voting rights for years to come.
Shannon Grimes is currently studying social policy as a graduate student at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. She recently moved to Seattle from Belfast, Maine, where she managed Maine Farmland Trust's nutrition incentive (food access) program, helping provide extra local fruits and vegetables to people using SNAP benefits. She was also involved with regional food systems network Food Solutions New England, particularly to help advance their commitment to racial equity, and served on the board of the Belfast Co-op. Her policy interests build off her undergraduate major in Government from Bowdoin College. Other pursuits she enjoys include hiking, cooking, and salsa dancing.