Primary elections held during COVID-19 show immediate need for resources, expanded vote by mail, and safe in-person voting options
No American voter should have to choose between their health and their right to vote. In the first group of elections since the COVID-19 outbreak, the recent primaries showed the challenges and potential of expanding mail-in voting options. They also showed the immediate need for action by election officials and lawmakers to fix problems far too many voters faced in the last few weeks, from long lines at in-person voting centers, to voting machine failures, to mail-in ballot delays.
Throughout the states that expanded vote by mail in order to protect public health, we saw some real challenges as election administrators attempted to manage the massive increase of mail-in ballots, significant consolidation of polling places, and new voting equipment.
All the problems documented in this memo are solvable and must be fixed before the November general election. The window to make the general election safe and accessible and expand vote by mail systems is closing for many states, so immediate action is needed.
We urge you to use your editorial influence to push state and local lawmakers and election officials to immediately begin adopting new processes that expand safe voting options, make rapid response plans for outside and environmental issues that may arise, and invest in election infrastructure, poll worker recruitment and training, and public education to ensure the November election is fair, accessible, and secure. We also urge you to editorialize in support of Congress allocating significant new funding to the states to better administer their elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Issues Faced In Post-COVID-19 Primary Elections
Increased vote by mail usage: In nearly every state that voted since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, we saw a dramatic increase in the use of mail-in ballots. Voting by mail is a solution that has been tried and tested in states across the country, but many of the primary states were trying to implement and process a level of mail-in voting that took Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Utah years to get to. To be clear, with the correct implementation, administration, and resources, running an election mostly by mail is possible, but time is running out and states must act now.
The challenges we saw with voting by mail varied from state to state. One common issue we saw was that ballots were mailed too late to voters and that some voters did not receive them at all. In many of the states that recently expanded vote by mail options because of COVID-19, the infrastructure to process requests and produce ballots was not fully implemented to deal with the huge increase of mail-in ballot requests. In Maryland, for example, ballots were mailed to all of the state’s 3.5 million registered voters, although at least 1 million of those ballots were delayed in Baltimore City and Montgomery County. In both of those localities, people of color make up a majority of the population. Pennsylvania, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Georgia had similar challenges with ballots being mailed late.
Other issues with rapidly expanding mail-in voting included strict return deadlines, such as Indiana’s deadline for voters to drop off their ballots that they could or wish not to mail by 12pm on Election Day even though the polls didn’t close until 6pm. For Pennsylvania’s June 2nd primary, Governor Tom Wolf extended the deadline for receiving mail-in ballots in some counties until Tuesday June 9th as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
These issues are also directly related to voter registration records, which is why it’s important for states to offer automatic and online voter registration (including online absentee ballot requests) to help keep updated and secure voter registration lists as people move and change their registration status.
While all the issues we saw with mail-in voting can be solved by November with proper planning and processes, we should not lose sight of the dramatic increases in people wanting to vote by mail, which is a good thing. In Washington, DC, more than 60% of ballots cast in the 2020 primary were by mail, compared to just 7% in the 2016 primary. In Iowa, 410,000 people voted absentee in the 2020 primary, compared to 38,000 in the 2016 primary. In Pennsylvania, more than 1.8 million people requested absentee ballots, compared to just over 100,000 from four years ago, thanks to Pennsylvania’s recent law expanding absentee ballot use. In Georgia, election officials saw a 2,500% increase in voting by mail from the 2016 primary. In West Virginia, more than 262,000 voters requested an absentee ballot compared to 6,700 requests in 2016.
It is clear that many people want to vote by mail given the COVID-19 pandemic, and now election officials must make the appropriate changes to ensure they are prepared to handle a dramatic increase in mail-in ballot requests for November. State and federal lawmakers must also provide the adequate resources to make this happen.
Polling place consolidations: As state and local governments dealt with a dramatic increase in mail-in voting, a shortage of poll workers, and attempts to follow public health guidelines, we saw many polling place consolidations across the country. Pennsylvania’s two most populous counties, Philadelphia and Allegheny, shifted more than 2,100 polling places open in a typical election to fewer than 500. In New Mexico, only 381 out of the 548 polling locations were open, which was particularly challenging for the Native population that is suffering from COVID-19 at a much higher rate than the rest of the state. In Rhode Island, only 47 polling places of the 144 that were open in 2016 were available to voters. In Washington, DC, only 20 of the 144 polling places from 2016 were open. In the Atlanta, GA metro region, there were at least 80 fewer polling places because many churches, schools, and other locations could not be used due to COVID-19 concerns. In Nevada’s June 9th primaries, which was conducted primarily by mail, only three polling places were open for the Las Vegas area’s 1.3 million voters, leading to long lines. In Richland County, SC, polling place consolidation and poll worker shortages led to long lines for the state’s June 9th primary. Polling place consolidations in Wisconsin for the state’s April 7th elections received widespread coverage because of the drastic changes. In Milwaukee, just five of the normal 180 voting locations were open, and in Green Bay, only 2 out of the normal 31 were open.
The consolidation of polling places, shortage of poll workers, and unprocessed absentee ballot requests led to longer lines for voters who decided to vote in-person. In some cases, like in Georgia, the poll worker shortages and confusion over polling place consolidation led to voting locations not opening on time on Election Day. What’s clear is that when expanding vote by mail options, election officials must still offer adequate safe in-person voting options and avoid significant polling place consolidations that create long wait times and confusion for voters.
Voting machines not working: Several states, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, saw voting machine glitches and failures which led to long lines. Election jurisdictions that only deploy machines to vote must have emergency ballots and provisional paper ballots on hand in the event that the primary voting system fails and no one can vote or only a few people can vote at a time. Unfortunately, in Georgia, this did not happen and when machines failed lines grew.
Voting machine problems in Georgia were particularly a widespread problem. Issues ranged from machines not working to polling locations not being staffed with enough machines, both which led to long lines. Unfortunately, election officials were warned that this would happen and did not listen. In February, Common Cause and the Brennan Center for Justice submitted comments to the office of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger with specific recommendations on managing the 2020 elections. Included in these comments was both a call for more voting machines in polling locations and a clear warning that Georgia’s new voting machines could fail on Election Day and that emergency back-up paper ballots were needed.
Spread of disinformation online: Throughout the primary season, Common Cause staff have been tracking disinformation and misinformation online related to voting rights and working with the social media platforms to take down content that contains false information or seeks to confuse people on when, where, and how to vote. This is a threat to voters that we expect to grow as we get closer to the November election.
Civil unrest, curfews, and police presence at the polls: The ongoing protests and civil unrest around racial justice, police brutality, and the murder of George Floyd presented another challenge for election officials and voters. To be clear, every American has the right to make their voice heard on the streets by protesting and in the ballot box by voting. The burden to make our elections accessible and work for all voters is on our state and local governments, not on the protesters or voters.
The increased police presence in many cities, street closures, and curfews imposed in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and other cities became a source of intimidation and confusion for voters. In many places, we saw police stationed outside or near voting sites. Even if there is no direct threat to voters, the very presence of police can be an intimidating factor for many voters.
Additionally, the curfews set because of the protests led to confusion and frustration for voters and election workers. Washington, DC’s 7pm curfew conflicted with the 8pm poll closers. While Mayor Muriel Bower announced that election workers and people exercising their right to vote were exempt from the curfew, it was not clear that police were adequately informed of that. Even with exemption, the curfews were still a factor that likely lowered participation. In DC, as lines to vote lasted to nearly midnight, there were several reports of police telling people in line to vote to go home because of the curfew. Meanwhile, during the early voting period in Atlanta, Georgia, people waited in line for hours and broke the city’s curfew.
In preparation for November, election officials must be making rapid response plans for all possible situations that could arise, including health emergencies, civil unrest, curfews, natural disasters, and foreign election interference.
Use of highly insecure internet or email voting: In response to the unique challenges of the pandemic, some jurisdictions have allowed or expanded voting by email or through internet portals. In Washington, DC, on Monday night before the election, DC voters were told they could submit ballots by email. Delaware and West Virginia have expanded internet voting to voters with disabilities. This expansion of highly insecure email voting is dangerous and should not be undertaken. Recently, four government agencies, including NIST, the EAC, DHS, and the FBI, warned that voting by email and internet could jeopardize election results.
Recommendations Moving Forward
In order to ensure the November general election is fair, accessible, and safe, we urge you to editorialize in support of these recommendations and solutions:
- Congress must immediately provide significant funding to the states for elections. The CARES Act passed and signed into law in March provided $400 million for states to administer their elections, but it is going to take significantly more resources for the states to run efficient elections in the COVID-19 environment. One study estimates the cost of the 2020 election to be $4 billion. In May, the U.S. House passed the HEROES Act, which includes an additional $3.6 billion in funding for states to administer elections. The U.S. Senate should quickly follow the House’s action. With just five months away from the November election, Congress must act now so states have enough time to make the necessary changes and plans, recruit and train workers, buy equipment, and do outreach to the public about new voting processes. In order for expanded vote by mail to work, Congress most also adequately fund the U.S. Postal Service.
- When expanding vote by mail, states must make sure they are prepared and make the process accessible to all voters. This preparation includes making sure that voters can easily request absentee ballots and providing clear and convenient options for voters to return their ballots, including providing pre-paid postage, establishing dropboxes in the community and at polling places, and allowing voters to mail their ballots back through Election Day. Election officials also need to mitigate barriers to mail ballots being counted, such as onerous witness or signature match requirements, and have a clear plan to give voters an opportunity to clear up any issues with their mail-in ballot so it can be counted. In addition, election officials must work closely with print vendors to ensure that ballots are properly printed and mailed to voters in a timely fashion. Election officials should also make sure voting by mail is accessible to people with disabilities and consider safe remote accessible vote by mail options that keep voters’ choices private and secure.
- States must maintain in-person voting options and adopt strong safety measures to protect the public health of poll workers and voters. Even with an increase in vote by mail use, states must maintain adequate in-person voting locations and avoid large-scale polling place consolidations like we saw in the primaries. In election jurisdictions that exclusively deploy voting machines, election officials must have a robust supply of emergency paper ballots and paper provisional ballots so that voting can continue if and when voting machines fail.
- Election officials must develop strong contingency plans now. Now is the time for election administrators to plan for emergencies that could make it difficult to conduct an election, such as natural disasters, a spike in COVID-19 cases, and ongoing or renewed civil unrest.
- Election officials must do extensive public outreach to voters. Increased public outreach and education by election officials on when, where, and how to vote and specific messaging on how vote by mail works will be essential in both helping voters understand new voting systems and inoculating voters from disinformation they may see online.
- Election officials should prioritize security when developing voting systems and avoid any online or internet voting system. Election officials should also take extra steps to ensure voter registration databases and drop boxes are secure.