Experts: Not all states ready to hold safe elections in pandemic

Many US states don't offer the policies and flexibility that voters will need to avoid COVID-19 infection during the upcoming general election on Nov 3—and don't have much time to correct the deficiencies, according to two Rand Corp studies published today to inform state lawmakers and election officials on mitigating health risks and ensuring election integrity.

In the first report, researchers looked at whether states offered absentee voting, early voting, and online voter registration that would lessen voter exposure and community spread amid a coronavirus pandemic that shows no signs of abating. Nine states have no automatic registration, early voting, or no-excuse mail-in options, while 12 states and Washington, DC, support all three options.

Degrees of preparedness

Eight states and Washington, DC, are in a good position for safe voter registration, offering automatic, online, and same-day voter registration. But five states—Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas—have no such provisions, requiring in-person voting; these states would face the most challenges if they have to shift to remote processes should large coronavirus outbreaks occur, the researchers said.

All states except 16 offer no-excuse mail-in or absentee voting. The 16 states offer only in-person voting, which requires transportation and could deter voters concerned about infection—particularly those who are older or have underlying medical conditions that put them at high risk for poor outcomes.

Six states and Washington, DC, offer flexible, remote voting with no-excuse mail-in balloting, don't mandate a witness or notary signature, and accept ballots if postmarked by Election Day. But five states have none of these provisions.

Thirty-nine states and Washington, DC, offer early voting, while six offer early voting for those with qualifying reasons. Of these states, eight have early voting periods longer than 30 days, and 13 have early voting periods of 16 to 30 days.

In general, western states had had more flexible voting policies and may be best able to ensure safety through remote and distributed procedures, while those in the South and Northeast had more rigid policies that may make it difficult to comply with physical distancing.

Specifically, California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington state had the most flexible voting procedures, while Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee were the most rigid.

There were also idiosyncrasies among states, such as North Dakota having no voter registration system, and Pennsylvania requiring an excuse to vote absentee while offering a no-excuse mail-in option.

Ensuring election access and integrity

Some states have started to temporarily relax excuse requirements or signature mandates for absentee ballots, but Rand researchers said that these stop-gap measures will not make voting more resilient amid similar disruptions in the future.

"The COVID-19 pandemic presents a severe threat to states' 2020 election plans, which will have higher turnout and higher stakes since this is a presidential election year," researcher Jennifer Kavanagh, PhD, MA said in a Rand press release. "To be prepared to conduct elections during a pandemic, states will need registration and voting options that reduce crowds, minimize direct personal contact and limit common access to high-touch surfaces."

The authors said that state officials must act now to evaluate voter registration offices and polling places for their ability to encourage physical distancing and hygiene, identify more suitable polling places, and recruit and train election judges.

States promoting absentee balloting must buy equipment, hire more workers to process more ballots than ever before, anticipate postal ballot delivery delays and logistical problems, and communicate clearly with voters so they are reassured they can register and vote safety and securely this fall.

"Approaches that support flexibility and resilience with respect to conducting elections during a pandemic also have implications for election access and integrity that should be considered," Rand stated on the report's landing page.

But one option, online voting, while promoting voter and poll worker health and safety, is rife with opportunities for voting fraud and should not be used in the 2020 election, the researchers concluded.

The reports are part of Rand's Countering Truth Decay project, which is designed to restore a more prominent role to facts, data, and analysis in US political and community discussions and policymaking.

Questions for states to consider

The second report outlines ways that state officials can conduct elections safely and securely while offering voters privacy. After considering voting options in terms of planning, timeliness, costs, and materials, officials should look for ways to limit the number of voters in close indoor spaces, the researchers said.

Questions for policymakers to ponder include:

  • What is our starting point in terms of election systems and voter preferences?
  • What types of risk are we willing to accept? What are our risk priorities?
  • How much flexibility is there to make changes to our existing approach?
  • Given estimates of uncertainty and voter preferences, do we have the capacity to meet voter demands for different types of voting options?

The authors said that the November election will be an extraordinary one, and states and the federal government will likely need to underwrite some voting policy changes. "Elections that are perceived to be safe, conducted with integrity, and accessible to all eligible voters can be a first step toward building and maintaining a government that people trust," the authors wrote in the report.

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