Our journey through America’s varying levels of pandemic-voting preparedness continues this week with looks at Arkansas, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont.
Every week, we’re looking at what states have done — or not done — to make voting easier during the coronavirus outbreak, where the fights over those moves have been the most contentious, and which states feature the kind of competitive races that could make things extra messy and volatile come November.
Here’s this week’s installment of our survey, and check out the other states we’ve examined.
Unlike some other states, Arkansas is not sending every active registered voter a ballot for this year’s election. Nor, like many other states, is it sending everyone an application to request a ballot. The state also doesn’t provide prepaid postage.
But let’s count our blessings: In August, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) did issue an executive order allowing anyone concerned about COVID-19 to vote by mail. In the same order, Hutchinson said that election officials would have additional time, coinciding with the state’s early voting period, to process mailed ballots in order to accommodate the spike in demand.
But the state made these changes reluctantly. In June, the state faced a lawsuit when it dragged its feet to change Arkansas’ existing restrictions for absentee voting — requiring that a voter be “unavoidably absent” — and even then, the state appeared ready to fight the case. County officials, Secretary of State John Thurston said, “have conveyed to my office that they feel the current voting system will be adequate in November.”
The pair of changes — expanding absentee voting and allowing early ballot processing time for elections officials — may be able to expand voting by mail without stressing election officials with a wave of ballots that overwhelm counting capacities. Counties have seen record-breaking demand for the absentee option.
But even with the expansion in absentee voting, challenges remain. For example, ballots received after Election Day, even if they’re postmarked on Election Day, won’t be counted. And prospective voters still can’t register or submit absentee ballot applications online.
The state is a shoo-in for Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), who faces no Democratic challenger but instead a Libertarian opposed to Cotton’s view that the United States has an “under-incarceration problem.” The Second Congressional District, on the other hand, is surprisingly close according to one recent poll, between incumbent Rep. French Hill (R-AK) and state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D).
If you want to know how serious California’s politicians are about mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic — or at least, how serious they are about looking serious — check out the new bill signed into law on last week: SB 739 makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally mislead Californians about their right to vote by mail.
Even before the pandemic, a growing number of Californians were embracing vote-by-mail: State data shows that, over the years, the percentage of ballots cast by mail in California crept up to encompass the majority of the state, reaching 72% earlier this year.
While in-person voting is still available for the general election, every registered, active voter in the state will receive a mail-in ballot for the November contest, in line with a handful of states across the country doing the same. And mailed-in ballots will be counted a full 17 days after Election Day if they are postmarked on time, an extension from years past and one that will allow even more time for the state’s famously slow counting process.
That extension could help some ballots arriving late because of mail delays, but risks remain: A study by the California Voter Foundation found that in 2018, most ballots rejected for late arrival in Sacramento County were actually postmarked the day after Election Day, and therefore wouldn’t have been helped by the 17-day grace period.
The state faces other hurdles: California has millions of eligible voters who self-identify as “limited English proficient” — more than some states have in their total voting populace. And whereas those voters would normally be able to ask poll workers for help at their precinct, this time around many will have to proactively call election officials to request a ballot in their preferred language.
The climate apocalypse poses a threat to voting as well. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated to escape wildfires over the last month, but evacuees can still vote in person, contact election officials to change their address, or even fill out their ballot online and then print and deliver it to election officials.
Advocates in the state voiced another fear to TPM: Distrust of the postal service, spurred by President Trump’s attacks on the institution, could discourage some voters. But Californians have a useful tool on their side in the form of a spiffy ballot tracker.
The state is a lock for Joe Biden. But interesting races abound down-ballot, perhaps most of all in the race to fill the currently vacant seat of convicted felon Duncan Hunter. Hunter’s former congressional competitor Ammar Campa-Najjar and former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) are locked in a dead heat. CA-25, currently represented by Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) after Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) stepped down last year, offers a rematch of the special election Garcia won just a few months ago, against State Assemblywoman Christy Smith.
Illinois has taken some major steps to make casting a ballot safer during the pandemic, but there are still a few places where voter advocates say that the state has fallen short in making voting easier.
Perhaps the most significant change was the state’s move, via a law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), to send ballot applications to registered voters who had participated in recent elections. Legislation signed by the governor also declared Nov. 3 a state holiday so that schools and government buildings could serve as polling places, so as to spread out in-person voting at more locations. Additionally, the state made changes to its early in-person voting regime to make that option more accessible during the pandemic.
Chicago-area Republicans sued to block several of the changes the state made to open up voting, but the lawsuit was rejected by a federal judge earlier this month.
Illinois already had no-excuse absentee voting in the state, though it had not been particularly widely used until now. Illinois’ last election was just before the COVID-19 outbreak had really taken hold, but the application numbers for the primary suggest that it will see a major surge in mail voting for the general. In Cook County for instance, election officials have already seen four times the absentee ballot applications over its previous record.
The deadline for applying for an absentee ballot, less than a week before the election, runs the risk of voters not receiving them in time for the election. However, local election officials are expanding their use of ballot drop boxes, and ballots postmarked by Election Day will be counted if they’re received within two weeks after the election.
The state also offers multiple options for voter registration — including an online process and the opportunity to register in-person up until Election Day.
Despite these strides, voter advocates are still frustrated that the state is only mailing ballot applications to recent voters, rather than everyone who is registered to vote. There is also not a statewide portal for requesting mail ballots online, though some counties have set up an online request option on their own.
There is a possibility that final election results will take longer to report, given the two-week grace period for accepting absentee ballots. But helping election officials deliver unofficial results quickly is the fact that they are allowed to begin processing absentee ballots as they come in.
There are three U.S. House races in Illinois that are being particularly closely watched. Democrats are trying to capture a Republican-held seat while they hold off GOP challenges to a House seat Dems only took in 2018, as well as to DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos.
New Jersey is conducting an almost entirely vote-by-mail election, for the first time proactively sending out ballots to registered Democrats and Republicans and ballot applications to all other eligible voters. It had a similar set-up for the July elections, including limited in-person voting sites where people could cast a provisional paper ballot.
Election officials sought to iron out in July’s contest some of the issues that arose in the state’s May municipal elections, which were the first elections New Jersey ever conducted 100 percent by mail. ne in every ten ballots in May’s election was rejected. The July primaries went more smoothly, though it took over a month for the results to be certified. That’s partially due to the large window given for ballots to be accepted — up to a week after Election Day with a timely postmark — and partially because New Jersey is still getting the hang of administering such mail-heavy elections. In the 2018 midterms, a then-record 12.3 percent of the vote was cast by mail. In July, about 87 percent of it was.
The Trump campaign, RNC and state committee have mounted a sluggish legal crusade against the state’s expanded voting access. Initially, they argued that Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) executive order greenlighting the mostly-mail election was unlawful and that only the legislature could determine how elections were administered. That argument became moot when the Democratic-majority legislature expanded and codified Murphy’s measures in law. The Republican challengers then refocused their ire on the new law’s provisions that allow election workers to start counting ballots 10 days before Election Day and to accept ballots without a postmark up to two days afterwards. However, team Trump did not file a corresponding motion for an injunction. Even the federal judge on the case seemed surprised by the halfhearted maneuver: “I’m just not sure why this was not filed with any urgency,” he said earlier this month.
While the presidential and Senate races in New Jersey are safe Democratic bets, three House contests are extremely competitive. In all three — districts two, three and seven — Democrats flipped previously Republican seats in 2018, and are fighting to keep the districts blue. In two of them, incumbent Reps. Andy Kim (D-NJ) and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) are charged with that responsibility — their races rated by the Cook Political Report a “toss up” and “leans Democratic,” respectively. The third features Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ), a Democrat when he won the seat in 2018 who has since switched parties and declared his “undying support” for President Donald Trump. He’s up against Amy Kennedy (yes, those Kennedys) in the traditionally Republican district. Polls show them neck-and-neck.
Vermont’s election should be a relative snoozefest at the federal level, with the Trump campaign not seriously contesting the state and the only federal election — for the state’s single House seat — likely safe for the Democratic incumbent. The state’s Republican governor is up for reelection after a narrow win in 2016, while neither chamber of the state legislature is seriously contested, sitting heavily on the Democratic side. But in COVID-19 terms, the state is reasonably well-prepared, though this is the first time it will be trying out a vote-by-mail plan that has survived an attack in the courts by Republicans.
To safely hold elections during the pandemic, Vermont enacted sweeping changes to create a universal mail-by-voting system that sends ballots with pre-paid postage to every Vermont voter. Vermonters can vote without notary or witness requirements, then return the ballots either in person to the local clerk or at a polling precinct, or by mail. Election officials can begin processing absentee ballots 30 days before the election, which should help them manage any potential backlog created by this year’s unprecedented surge in mail voting. Additionally, Vermont has an accessible system for voter registration that includes online registration, and the option for Election Day registration for those who vote in person.
Interestingly, the state’s Republican governor approved this absentee voting expansion, only to have a current and a former state Republican legislator attack the changes in a lawsuit. A federal judge threw the case out of court this month, allowing the secretary of state to begin sending ballots this week. The state held a primary in August, during which some 6,000 mail-in ballots were rejected due to defects, out of the record-breaking 123,000 absentee ballots that were cast. Vermont also does not accept ballots postmarked by but arriving after Election Day, and those who submit defective ballots have no opportunity to fix them after submission. Otherwise, this state’s election does not outwardly suggest major problems to come, and may have results counted and certified on the evening of Election Day — a potential rarity for states this year.