Voting During the Coronavirus Pandemic

May 13, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged America’s electoral system in many ways. By mid-March, leaders in 16 states and Puerto Rico had decided to push back or cancel Primary Elections to limit spread of the virus through in-person voting. In New York, two election workers contracted the virus while processing voter registration forms and other election materials and later died. Coronavirus cases also were linked to in-person voting in two states, Wisconsin and Illinois, that went ahead with elections as planned. California’s March primary election was held two weeks before Governor Newsom issued the statewide shelter-in-place order, but it is clear that elections officials here and across the country are looking toward November with trepidation and concern.

Some states are pushing to expand the use of vote-by-mail to limit in-person exposure, while lawmakers in Washington debate if and how the federal government should weigh in. California, like several other states, has already charted the course for conducting vote-by-mail elections though the Voter’s Choice Act of 2016, which specifies that participating counties send a mail-in ballot to all registered voters and provide a certain number of ballot drop-off locations and in-person vote centers. In the March presidential primary, 15 counties conducted elections under this model. Nearly 7 million Californians – 72% of all those who participated in the 2020 primary – cast their ballot by mail. Elections expert Paul Mitchell told Capitol Weekly that California was uniquely prepared to administer elections amid the pandemic due to increased use of by-mail voting over the past two decades and a largely remote voter registration system.

As part of its 2017 review of voter participation in California, the Commission considered the efficiency of the electoral process, including efforts to increase voter registration and improve access. The Commission heard testimony that the Voter’s Choice Act model was rife with implementation challenges around both vote-by-mail and vote center options. Regarding vote-by-mail, researchers told Commissioners that not all voters would use mail-in ballots with equal frequency and found that repeat voters used the option more frequently as opposed to younger voters who may be confused about how to vote. African-American voters did not trust that their vote would be counted if sent through the mail and were concerned about the postal service’s ability to deliver ballots on time. The Commission also learned about a number of potential implementation challenges resulting from the switch away from neighborhood polling places to regional vote centers. These issues included ensuring connectivity for vote centers, identifying appropriate and secure facilities, maintaining accessible voting systems and supporting voters with disabilities, and providing appropriate language assistance for non-native English speakers. Though the Commission ultimately did not address these concerns in its report and instead focused on implementation of the New Motor Voter Program, some experts and advocates are raising similar concerns today.

In a recent letter to the Governor and Secretary of State, for example, voting advocates encouraged the state to require that officials provide some in-person voting options and expand mail-in options so that marginalized voters – including communities of color, youth, language minorities, people with disabilities, poor people, and the homeless – do not become disenfranchised.

At the same time, some elections experts have advocated increasing vote-by-mail as much as possible. Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California recently wrote that the state must ensure the availability of options to vote in person for those who want them, but also noted California’s widespread use of mail voting, and stressed that our state “must get as many voters to cast votes by mail as possible.”

It is too early to know exactly how the pandemic will impact participation in California’s November General Election, but the election will be held as planned on November 3rd. An executive order signed by Governor Newsom ensures that all registered voters will receive a mailed ballot and have the option to vote at home. And to assuage fears about the security of voting by mail, the Secretary of State is promoting a new tool for election officials that allows voters to check the status of their vote-by-mail ballots. As of April 24, voters in 26 counties have access to the “Where’s My Ballot?” tool. But guidance and requirements for in-person voting on or before Election Day are still forthcoming.

As California’s election officials plan for November, they will need to balance the concerns of operating efficient, accessible elections and protecting public health and safety amid the virulent coronavirus pandemic.

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