The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly transforming this year’s elections, changing the way tens of millions of people cast ballots and putting thousands of election officials at the center of a pitched political fight as they rush to adapt with limited time and funding.
In a watershed moment for American voting, nearly 30 states have changed rules or practices for this year’s primaries or the general election in response to the public health threat posed by covid-19, according to a tally by The Washington Post. The new policies affect roughly 86.6 million registered voters — including more than 40 million people who now have the temporary right to cast an absentee ballot because of the virus.
This striking shift in the voting landscape encompasses nearly every part of the country, red and blue states alike. But with November less than six months away, the largely bipartisan wave of change has been hit by political turbulence as President Trump raises unfounded doubts about the security of voting by mail and threatens to punish states where Democratic leaders are facilitating it.
Battles over voting in the age of the coronavirus are defining the 2020 presidential cycle, with intense partisan fights over the rules erupting in states such as Wisconsin and Texas. The outcome will shape how easy it will be for people to cast their ballots in November — and in some cases, whether certain mail-in votes will be counted.
As more than two dozen legal battles wend their way through the courts, local and state officials are racing to figure out how to administer the election amid the health crisis, propelled by an unyielding calendar.
“There’s so much debate in Washington, particularly as a result of comments from the president, around the questions: ‘Are people going to be voting by mail?’ ‘Should they be allowed to vote by mail?’ And the fact of the matter is, they’re doing it,” said Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“The election officials have to essentially create a new infrastructure for handling that,” he added. “They prepared for one election and got another.”
This year, more than 168 million of the nation’s nearly 198 million registered voters are eligible to vote absentee in either midyear contests or the general election.
In the fall, the country could see a huge surge in mail voting compared with 2016, when more than 33 million ballots were cast absentee or sent in by mail for the general election, about 24 percent of the vote, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
The process has already been messy and costly, posing challenges for local election clerks, the U.S. Postal Service and voters trying to navigate the shifting rules.
The next big test will come June 2, when eight states and the District of Columbia are holding primaries. At the same time, many jurisdictions are face looming deadlines to order ballot materials and specialty equipment for the general election.
“We’re all looking at it like this is our dry run and multiplying it by what could happen in November,” said Roxanna Moritz, auditor for Scott County, Iowa, of the June 2 contests in her state, which has seen a massive spike in requests for absentee ballots. “As soon as we’re finished, we’re in a dead heat.”
A swift transformation
The shift toward absentee voting has been rapid and widespread over the past two months since the coronavirus began to claim thousands of lives throughout the country.
At first, political debate was muted as elected officials made changes to voting procedures they said were necessary to protect the public.
Starting with Louisiana on March 13, more than a dozen states postponed primaries. Officials cited a number of practical challenges arising from the pandemic, including elderly poll workers withdrawing from their jobs out of concern for their health and a shortage of sanitizing equipment for polling places.
“This decision has been made out of an absolute abundance of caution for Louisiana’s voters, voting officials and the general public as a whole,” said Kyle Ardoin, the Republican secretary of state, as he announced that his state was delaying its primary more than two months. Officials later delayed it again for three more weeks.
Since then, state leaders from both parties have announced decisions to facilitate absentee voting for people who fear contracting the coronavirus by casting ballots in person. This national shift has drawn comparisons to other periods of large-scale transformation in U.S. voting, such as the overhaul that followed the 2000 presidential election debacle, which set new minimum standards for election administration and provided federal funding to replace aging voting equipment.
Decisions about expanding absentee voting this year have in some cases been made by secretaries of states, often in partnership with governors — both Republican and Democratic. In others, court rulings, new state laws and decisions by local officials are playing a role.
While only a handful of states have made decisions about how they will hold their elections in November, many have already put in place a wide range of changes for their midyear contests, The Post’s review found.
Eleven states that require an excuse to vote absentee have announced that voters may cast ballots by mail for the primaries this year if they are concerned in-person voting will make them sick. These decisions temporarily make voting by mail accessible to more than 40 million people.
Another 12 states and the District of Columbia are proactively sending absentee ballot applications or request forms to voters specifically because of the coronavirus. Roughly 34.7 million people will receive the forms, according to state figures on registered and active voters.
In the most controversial move, four states — Maryland, Montana, Nevada and New Jersey — are proactively sending absentee ballots for the primaries to approximately 11.3 million voters in the coming months. They join five states that already mail ballots to voters.
Critics say this practice substantially increases the risk of ballot fraud. Proponents argue that with the right safeguards, such as signature requirements and verification measures, mailing ballots is secure.
“This decision, which was not made lightly, both ensured the primary election could move forward as scheduled and provided a way to protect the health and safety of voters and election workers in Nevada,” Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, said in a statement this past week.
The swift changes have forced local election administrators to overhaul their operations to prepare for a surge in absentee voting.
That’s also the case in 34 states that already do not require an excuse to vote absentee or by mail, where officials are bracing for millions more voters to embrace that option than in past elections.
In Pennsylvania, voters had submitted approximately 1.6 million applications for mail-in and absentee ballots for the June 2 primaries as of this past week, a figure Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar called “off the charts.”
And in Georgia, almost 1.5 million people have requested absentee ballots for the June 9 primary as of this past week, a dramatic increase over previous elections. State officials estimate that as many as half of voters will cast absentee ballots — compared with just 5 to 7 percent in a typical election.
The pressure on local election clerks is now intense in states such as Iowa, where Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate announced in March that active registered voters would receive absentee ballot request forms in the mail ahead of the June 2 congressional primaries.
As of mid-May, the number of absentee ballot requests had spiked more than 10 times on average over 2016, according to a breakdown provided by Moritz.
Election offices are now scrambling to keep up as they process the requests, ensure the correct ballot is sent to each voter, purchase extra supplies and educate the public about the process.
Meanwhile, the state is also reopening businesses, raising the possibility of another viral outbreak.
“We are in uncharted territory,” said Moritz, a Democrat who leads the state association of county auditors. “Our governor is opening up . . . and we’re three weeks from an election. What does that mean for us?”
Moritz and other local election officials across the country are already contending with the mounting costs of making voting safe during the pandemic.
A $2.2 trillion virus relief package that passed March 27 included $400 million in voting funds for states. While nearly all that money has been dispersed, it was only a fraction of what election officials sought, and a few states have struggled to fulfill a 20 percent match requirement.
County auditors in Iowa received just $300 per precinct from the secretary of state under the act to help purchase additional equipment, Moritz said. But when a single sneeze guard costs about $125 — and every polling place requires several — it is clear that money will only go so far.
Even in states that have received their full allocations, it is unclear how much of the funding will trickle down to local officials.
In Defiance County, Ohio, officials are still tallying up costs from the state’s primaries this spring. Additional expenses totaled approximately $20,000, including about $10,000 just for postage, said Deputy Elections Director Kim Smith, a Democrat.
“In Ohio, we’re already utilizing a lot of the federal funding that has come down,” said Smith. “That’s not going to cover two elections here.”
Some are holding out hope for the next federal relief bill. The version passed by the House included $3.6 billion for election assistance and a series of voting mandates favored by Democrats but is considered dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Just four states have so far changed their voting rules for the November general election, but many more are expected to join them in the coming weeks, as officials confront deadlines for ballot printing orders and purchases of equipment like high-capacity ballot scanners.
In New Hampshire, people concerned about contracting the coronavirus will be allowed to cast absentee ballots, a decision affecting roughly 875,000 registered voters. Connecticut and Michigan will send absentee ballot applications to about 8.7 million voters in those two states.
And in California, more than 20 million voters will receive actual absentee ballots in the mail.