Is Your State Ready For The Pandemic Election? A Look At AZ, FL, NH, SC And VA

We’re taking a state-by-state look at the places that appear most ready for a pandemic election, and the places that could be in for a big mess.
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September 4, 2020 1:22 p.m.

Our journey through America’s varying levels of pandemic-voting preparedness continues this week with looks at Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Virginia.

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.

Arizona

Arizona may not have it so bad this year. The state has used widespread, no-reason-required voting-by-mail longer than nearly any other. Eighty-eight percent of voters in the state’s August primary voted by mail, and even that volume did not significantly delay the reporting of the results. And yet, questions do persist about whether the state has invested enough to expand its absentee voting capacity above its already considerable level, amid partisan rancor that has blocked reforms which could help the situation. Attacks on the postal service have also put the state in a uniquely vulnerable spot.

Meanwhile, Arizona has become a battleground state in 2020, with President Trump vying to win it again and Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) fighting for her life to hold onto Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)’s former seat, which Mark Kelly, an astronaut and husband to former Rep. Gabby Giffords, hopes to claim.

President Trump has targeted the state with his bogus allegations of voter fraud, and the state’s voting rules are caught in a number of legal tussles that could change the state of play before Election Day. The attorney general’s office is controlled by a Republican, while the secretary of state is a Democrat, leading to fights between the two over, for example, conflicting deadlines on how to fix ballots that have various errors — that question is subject to a DNC lawsuit filed against the state in June. A separate case over that issue as well as over who can transport a ballot to a precinct is pending before the Supreme Court — the case’s acceptance could trigger more restrictive rules being reinstated.

This partisan rancor has meant that the state has put in place no changes to contend with COVID-19. In spite of that, election officials have cited a law that allows them to start counting votes received more than two weeks before Election Day as helpful in alleviating backlogs. Its solid history of remote voting has otherwise left it in a relatively prepared place for holding an election during a pandemic.

Florida

Beyond its typical swing state status, Florida will be watched closely on Election Day because it could serve as an early indicator of the type of Joe Biden landslide that would wrap the presidential race up that night, or soon thereafter.

Florida already had an expansive mail-in voting program before the pandemic, as it offered no excuse absentee voting and operated a semi-permanent absentee voting list that allowed voters to sign up to receive mail ballots for two general election cycles at a time. That approach had been embraced by Florida’s GOP, who saw it benefiting the Republican-leaning elderly population in the state. With election officials used to seeing a third of their ballots come in by mail, they were at an advantage over other states in figuring out what additional scaling-up was needed to accommodate the pandemic election, in which they estimate that mail ballots could make up 50 percent or more of the votes cast. Florida also has the kind of rules on the books that will help the counting process happen quickly.

Nonetheless, there was still some frustration over the state’s slowness to approve some additional rule changes that local election officials were seeking and its delays in dispersing the federal election funding Congress approved in its COVID-19 package this spring.

Furthermore, voting rights advocates are calling for early voting to start earlier in the state, and also want more drop boxes to be set up outside, in addition to the ones that are planned indoors at Florida’s early vote centers.

A major ongoing legal fight over ex-felon voting could inject additional chaos into November’s election. When the Supreme Court reinstated for August’s primary the state’s 2019 law barring ex-felons from voting until they had paid all fines, court fees and restitution associated with their conviction — described by voter advocates as a “poll tax” — it caused confusion for the ex-felons who registered to vote under a federal judge’s previous order partially blocking that 2019 law. It’s still TBD whether the law, which stands to prevent hundreds and thousands of people from voting, will be in place for the general.

In addition to the presidential race, Florida’s Democrats are hoping to flip at least one of its statehouse chambers to break up the GOP’s unified hold on its state government.

New Hampshire

Unlike most states, New Hampshire hasn’t faced the pandemic’s electoral test quite yet: Primary day is next week, Sept. 8.

But the state has made a few allowances for the virus: Concern about COVID-19 is now a valid excuse to cast an absentee ballot. First-time voters can also register through the mail, despite the state’s voter ID laws, by providing a copy of their state ID or other proof of their identity and address. The state also recently allowed voters with certain disabilities, such as blindness, to fill out a ballot online and print and return it, rather than requesting a typical print ballot and relying on another person’s assistance to fill it out.

Then there are the “Live Free or Die” accommodations, like separate polling areas for people who refuse to wear masks.

Voters may return ballots directly to election officials, and they may want to: New Hampshire allows voters to request absentee ballots up until the day before Election Day. At that point, sending it through the mail likely won’t get it counted in time.

Before a few years ago, the last substantial change to the state’s laws came in 1976, with legislation that allowed 18-year-olds to vote and allowed voting absentee. But after Donald Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by less than half of one percent in 2016, Republicans passed laws that made voting harder, especially for students.

SB3, a 2017 law that made voter registration more complicated, was struck down by a state judge in April. But judges didn’t stop HB 1264, which requires students and others who vote in New Hampshire to be considered legal residents of the state.

Voting rights advocates feared the initial lack of clarity over HB 1264 might discourage potential college student voters who’d rather not take steps otherwise required of residents, like getting new drivers licenses or registering their vehicles in New Hampshire — but, as the state’s Supreme Court made clear in an opinion in May, such steps are not required to vote. At this point, the line from Democrats and voting rights attorneys is straightforward: “If you live in New Hampshire, you can vote in New Hampshire.”

Last month, a memo from the secretary of state’s office articulated restrictions on the use of dropboxes — voters may only use them when they are staffed by an election official. Those restrictions and others were subsequently targeted in a lawsuit brought by the American Federation of Teachers, which said the rules would suppress the pandemic vote. The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee have asked a state superior court judge to allow them to intervene against the teachers’ union, on the side of New Hampshire’s secretary of state. If successful, the AFT suit could loosen state restrictions on everything from absentee ballot postage requirements and Election Day return deadlines to rules on third party absentee ballot collection.

The purple state will be the site of some contentious elections. Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is running for a third term as the state’s governor. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) is also seeking a third term and faces a Democratic primary election in a few days. And while Trump could turn the tables this year — Joe Biden came in a crushing fifth place in the state’s Democratic presidential primary — Biden is up against Trump in recent polling.

South Carolina

South Carolina is, as Greenville County spokesperson Conway Belangia put it, still waiting for the dust to settle. Decisions that will dramatically affect the November election — namely, whether or not all voters will get to cast absentee ballots — are still up in the air. There has been some recent progress, as the Republican-led state Senate passed a bill allowing voters to use a “state of emergency” excuse to vote absentee in the fall, after months of kicking the can down the road. Republicans refused to pass other measures called for by election officials, like waiving requiring voters to have a witness when signing their absentee ballots  to letting them submit their ballots in dropboxes, saying it would expose the process to fraud. There are two ongoing lawsuits in federal court that, while centered on the now-almost moot absentee voting issue, touch on some of those rejected measures.

The General Assembly passed a bill during the primaries letting voters temporarily use the “state of emergency” excuse to vote absentee, which brought in double the number of absentee ballots cast in 2016. But for the 75 percent of voters that cast a ballot in person, the process was plagued by COVID-19-caused problems. The day before the June 9 primary, the state election commission announced the movement of 250 polling places due to a lack of poll workers or unavailable sites, leading to significant voter confusion. The poll closures suffered by Richland County, the second-most populous in the state, disproportionately affected Black voters, many of whom stood in 5-hour lines well into the night. There were also problems with incomplete or incorrect ballots, an issue worsened, the state election commission determined, by inexperienced poll workers.

Displeased with the problems of the primary, the election commission went to work to smooth things out for the June 23 runoffs. In Richland County in particular, the commission recruited poll workers and held intensive training sessions for them, and assisted with the testing of voting machines. As a result, the runoffs went much more smoothly, with the caveat that they had lower turnout than the July 9 round. For the general, up to three times more voters are expected than the 767,187 people who voted in the primary. The state election commission had been pushing for county officials to start tallying ballots as early as the Friday before Election Day — they are currently required to keep the interior envelopes sealed until Election Day, a recipe for long wait times for results, especially if turnout in November is as high as expected. The state Senate bill would allow workers to start opening envelopes two days before the election. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is facing a surprisingly competitive reelection race against the well-funded former lobbyist Jaime Harrison, and Republicans are trying to flip Rep. Joe Cunningham’s (D-VA) House seat.

Virginia

Last week, the Virginia General Assembly passed a series of recommendations from Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to make voting in the general election even easier, building on the measures the completely-Democratic-led state government had already put in place. The new bills included setting aside $2 million for prepaid postage on ballots, waiving the requirement for a witness to the absentee ballot signature and mandating that drop boxes be placed in voting precincts. State Republicans balked at the inclusion of drop boxes, which they baselessly say will invite fraud, and prepaid postage, which they say the state can’t afford, but Democrats used their majorities to muscle through the measures. After a couple more procedural steps, Northam is expected to sign the bills into law.

The new measures are a complement to a battery of voting laws that Democrats, who have had a trifecta in the state since the 2019 elections, passed in April, just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States in earnest. That package extended early voting to a 45-day period, eliminated the photo ID requirement, made Election Day a state holiday and made voter registration automatic for all who use DMV services. A law was also passed to get rid of the excuse needed to vote absentee, though that didn’t go into effect until July 1, causing some temporary consternation around the June primary. Ultimately though, the excuse requirement was waived via a court order. The primary went smoothly, extremely high turnout notwithstanding — a record-breaking 1.3 million Virginians voted, including twice as many who voted absentee than did in the 2016 Democratic primary. In general though, the state has low absentee ballot percentages though it managed to cope with the influx well in the primary.

Last month, there was a flurry of concern when a third-party voter advocacy group sent around absentee ballot applications to hundreds of thousands of voters, some of which had an incorrect return address. The group, The Center for Voter Information, apologized for the mistake, and state election officials are encouraging people to apply for absentee ballots online.

The state is set to see some competitive House races. There is also a referendum on the ballot to create a bipartisan commission that would handle redistricting. Democratic nominee Joe Biden is well up in the state, and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) seems poised to win reelection.

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