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Traditional polling places could be hazardous during a time when people are supposed to keep their distance from one another. But one expert says many states won’t be able to swiftly transition to mail-in systems.
At least seven states are postponing primary elections in response to the coronavirus outbreak, while many others are now taking stock of their ability to expand vote-by-mail options.
But for states that currently rely on in-person voting, it’s unlikely they will be able to transition completely to mail-in voting in time for upcoming primary elections or even the general election in November, according to elections experts.
“If the jurisdiction already does a lot of vote-by-mail, it is possible they could get to full vote-by-mail,” U.S. Election Assistance Commission Chairman Ben Hovland.
Otherwise, in states where this kind of expansion isn’t feasible, Hovland said elections officials could look at other options to reduce the crush of voters at the polls on election days, such as ramping up absentee or early voting and still maintaining some polling places for residents that need it.
Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. have yet to hold primary elections for the presidential race. As of Friday, seven states —Maryland, Georgia, Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky—have postponed their primary elections in an effort to promote social distancing and prevent further transmission of the deadly virus. Others, like Missouri, have pushed back upcoming municipal elections as well.
Maryland could serve as a test case for election officials’ ability to quickly transition to an all-absentee system. While the primary elections have been postponed, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered a special election for a congressional seat to go forward April 28 using absentee ballots only.
Hogan said the state board of election indicated that it “could not possibly do the mail-in for the whole state,” but that handling it for just one congressional district was feasible.
“We are going to encourage people to vote absentee as much as possible, and those who aren't doing the normal absentee ballot will be able to do whatever additional steps they decide to take for mail-in ballots,” Hogan said.
Meanwhile in Texas, voting rights groups are urging Gov. Greg Abbott to expand vote-by-mail eligibility ahead of run-off and municipal elections so that Texans are not “asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote.”
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent commission that serves as a national clearinghouse on election administration, plans to issue guidance over the coming weeks to assist state and local election officials in preparation for increasing their capacity for mail-in voting.
One idea is to change how voters get absentee or mail-in ballots. Because many states ask voters to write in to request an absentee ballot, Hovland said elections officials could get overwhelmed by mail requests for paper ballots.
“That would create a lot of bureaucracy,” he said.
For elections officials who have the technological capabilities, Hovland said they may want to build an online request system.
The commission already determined that states could use federal grant funding to pay for supplies used to disinfect and clean polling places and elections equipment during the coronavirus pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out its own guidance on how election officials can help prevent the spread of coronavirus at polling places.
The Brennan Center for Justice has also laid out a plan states can use to protect voters while also safeguarding their rights. Steps include:
- Expand early voting to reduce long lines and administrative stress on Election Day.
- Keep polling places open for those who need them and maintain social distancing efforts and sanitization at polling locations.
- Offer mail-in ballots to all voters at no cost.
- Bolster online voter registration systems to ensure they can accommodate increased use.
- Take steps to increase public education about any election changes to proactively fight disinformation attempts or campaigns.
For states that look to expand mail-in or early voting to reduce the number of people visiting polls, there will be additional costs and planning steps to consider. The cost to cover postage necessary to mail and receive ballots to all voters across the country could range between $413 million and $593 million alone, according to the Brennan Center.
In Arizona, Florida and Illinois, which all went through with primary elections on Tuesday, elections officials said they did see higher levels of early voting and absentee voting.
In Illinois, unofficial counts showed 656,000 ballots cast in early voting and another 297,000 mail ballots were sent out to voters for the primary, said state board of elections spokesman Matt Dietrich. That surpasses early voting numbers from the 2016 primaries, when 520,000 people voted early and another 119,000 people voted by mail.
In Arizona, most voters already cast ballots by mail. But early voting was up significantly this year. Some 594,000 people voted in the state’s elections, with 480,000 voting early, up from 317,000 early voters in the 2016 primary.
In Florida, voter turnout was at 30%, with close to 3 million people casting ballots in the election compared to the 3.5 million people who voted in the 2018 primaries. A significant portion of voters either cast their ballots by mail or voted early. Approximately 1.3 million people had returned vote by mail ballots as of Friday and another 652,000 people voted early.
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Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.