Is Your State Ready For The Pandemic Election? A Look At IA, KS, ME, MT, OH

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 11, 2020 2:26 p.m.
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Our journey through America’s varying levels of pandemic-voting preparedness continues this week with looks at Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Montana and Ohio.

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.

Iowa

So, sure, we all remember the disaster that was Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential contest: The Democrats’ third-party app for processing caucus results “was not ready for primetime,” one expert told TPM then. Conflicting, late results left voters outraged for weeks. 

Iowa’s state-run primary was a different story: The June elections, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, smashed previous primary turnout records. And though Iowa has long had no-excuse absentee voting, this time voters used it: Nearly 80% cast absentee ballots. 

But within a few days of the primaries, the state’s Republican legislature inserted language into the a budget bill tying election officials’ hands when it came to absentee ballot applications that contained minor errors. Whereas before June election officials could use their voter database to correct incomplete or incorrect information, they’re now required to reach out to voters — first by phone and email, then regular mail — to have the voter fix it themselves. 

“When it comes to legislators trying to restrict the ability of the professionals to do what needs to be done … that creates problems,” David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, told TPM at the time. 

And it did: Election auditors in three counties, after the new restrictions were passed, sent ballot applications to voters with their personal information pre-filled, an attempt to avoid any errors. The Trump campaign has sued, successfully, to void these pre-filled applications in two counties so far, meaning tens of thousands of voters will have to re-do their requests. Democrats have since sued over the secretary of state’s directive prohibiting county auditors from pre-filling the ballot information.

Though absentee ballots in Iowa must be postmarked by the day before Election Day, Nov. 2, the state still counts ballots that are received up to a week after Election Day — a useful precaution as mail delays threaten to disenfranchise voters. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed an executive order last month restoring voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions (except for homicide and related crimes) who’ve completed their sentences. Iowa had been the last state in the nation to permanently disenfranchise felons unless they personally got the governor’s approval. 

In addition to the presidential race — polls say it’s pretty close — the state offers a few notable contests: Randy Feenstra, after defeating Rep. Steve King (R-IA) in the Republican primary, will face off against Democrat and retired pro baseball player J.D. Scholten. And Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a top target for Democrats, could end up losing to challenger Theresa Greenfield. The Cook Political Report calls that race a toss-up.

Kansas

Kansas has been the breeding ground for some of the most restrictive voting measures in the country. Yet, when it comes to the pandemic, local officials and advocates have some workarounds in place to help keep voting safe during the outbreak.

Absentee voting in the state has long not required an excuse and some of Kansas’ most populous counties are proactively mailing out applications to all voters. The state’s somewhat onerous photo ID mandate still applies to absentee voting, though it is somewhat more expansive in what forms of identification are acceptable than other states’. Kansas further relaxed it in the pandemic so that expired IDs can be used. Furthermore, election officials in some counties are willing to come to voters, take their picture, and print them out a free voter ID card. 

Even in counties where so-called “advanced ballots” (the term used in Kansas for absentee voting) were commonly used before the pandemic, August’s primary brought a notable increase in voters casting ballots absentee. Elsewhere, the number of absentee voters doubled what’s usual for that election, and turnout generally was higher than in a typical August primary.

“Those are all good indicators” for voter access, Cille King, the head of the Kansas chapter of the League of Women Voters, told TPM.

Yet the challenges that the pandemic is causing elsewhere in the country are visible in Kansas as well, with polling places being consolidated due to locations bailing and the recruitment of poll workers being a key focus for election officials heading into the fall.

Kansas counts mailed-in ballots postmarked by Election Day as long as they’re received by the following Friday, meaning reporting final results will take that long as well. However election officials are hoping that the vast majority of ballots will be counted by the night of Nov. 3, given that they provide plentiful options for voters to turn in their absentee ballots in-person by Election Day, including drop boxes and at polling places themselves.

Democrats saw their chances for snatching a U.S. Senate seat diminished a bit after the August primary, when the GOP establishment favorite beat out former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who previously lost a 2018 gubernatorial race to a Democrat. The race is still considered one to watch, in addition to two U.S. House races that stand to be competitive.

Maine

Vacationland has high political stakes this year: the electoral vote from Maine’s second congressional district is up for grabs, polling suggests, as is the seat of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Campaigns are pouring resources into the state accordingly, with a conservative legal group suing the state to gain access to its voter rolls. But in spite of the state’s consistently low COVID-19 infection rate, it has to contend with an unprecedented number of absentee ballot requests and last-minute strategizing over how to plan for the November election. 

Earlier this year, the state moved its primary from June to July. That election went off relatively uneventfully, with ballots being counted on time, though with a major caveat — the state overlooked 11,000 ballots whose counting did not change the result of any single contest. Litigation over the state’s switch to ranked-choice voting — Maine is the first state in the country to fully implement it — worked out.

So, amid all that, it looks as if November is set to go fairly smoothly in Maine, albeit amid a ferocious contest both for the Senate and one of the state’s four electoral votes. More than 120,000 Mainers have requested absentee ballots for the November election. State officials are moving forward with a plan to add drop-off boxes for absentee ballots around the state. Maine Governor Janet Mills (D) has helped the situation by issuing an executive order extending the number of days that officials can count votes received before Election Day to up to one week. But unfortunately, the state only accepts ballots that have arrived by Election Day, meaning that postal delays could leave reams of votes uncounted. 

Montana

Montana had a comparatively smooth primary because all 56 counties chose to take advantage of Gov. Steve Bullock’s (D) directive allowing them to conduct elections by mail amid the pandemic. Almost all Montanians vote by mail already — 73 percent of them did in the 2018 midterms — so it was an easier lift for the well-practiced state. Still, the shift made for Montana’s largest primary turnout in nearly 50 years, since 1972 when the state’s current constitution was ratified.

Bullock issued a similar directive in early August, giving counties permission to choose to conduct their elections by mail and to send out ballots to all registered voters. The counties would still have to provide some option for in-person voting, but the directive would also give them leeway to expand the early voting period. As of late August, nearly three-fourths of Montana’s counties had chosen to go that route, with seven of the eight largest choosing to take advantage of the governor’s directive. 

But last week, a potential wrench was thrown into the works courtesy of the Donald Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Montana Republican party. The group filed a lawsuit against Bullock, claiming that only the state legislature can allow all-mail federal elections and that his directive is in violation of the U.S. and state constitutions. Bradley Seaman, election administrator of Missoula County, the state’s second most populous county, told TPM in an email that the GOP group prevailing in the lawsuit would be a “VERY LARGE change” to how the county is gearing up for the election. “Depending on the timeframe of any decision, it could have a large impact,” he added. “We are currently looking into a rough contingency plan.”

While the outcome of the presidential election is a foregone conclusion in Trump-supporting Montana, the Republican lawsuit may be intended to shake up Bullock’s attempt to unseat incumbent Sen. Steve Danies (R-MT), a critical race that could determine which party controls the Senate. The contest to replace Bullock in the governor’s mansion is also highly competitive, with Republicans trying for a success that has eluded them since 2004. If at-large congressman Greg Gianforte (R-MT) can best Bullock’s Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney (D) in that race, Republicans will have a trifecta in the state. The race to fill Gianforte’s seat is also fairly competitive — Democrat Kathleen Williams, who lost to him by five points in 2018, is trying again.

Ohio

Less of a swing state than it once was but still crucial to the presidential election in 2020, Ohio faces a complicated November. That’s something of a surprise to both outside observers and those within the state: Ohio has been running elections with no-reason-needed absentee voting since 2005, but a potentially deadly combo of under-resourced precincts, sometimes lackadaisical efforts at addressing COVID-19, and confusion over how to request and use mailed-in ballots could result in extensive delays and uncertainty over the result. 

Take a look at the state’s primary. Delayed from mid-March to late April, Ohio held its primary with nearly all voters mailing in their ballots. The result was complicated by onerous red tape involved in requesting an absentee ballot, including an ID requirement. Voters were met with confusion over when the deadlines to submit ballots were and were stymied by extensive delays in mail. These problems — combined with capacity issues in ballot-counting — meant that the state was unable to announce official results on election night. 

For November, the picture is mixed. Secretary of State Frank LaRose directed $25,000 in CARES Act funding to each county board of elections in the state — a sum some experts say is not enough. LaRose has also warned that in spite of the 10 days after Election Day under which the state can receive eligible ballots, Ohioans should make sure to vote as early as possible due to delays. 

It’s a similarly mixed picture when it comes to setting up the physical and personnel infrastructure to administer the election. Each county, for example, is required to have one drop-off box for absentee ballots, but is barred from having more — a limit that is subject to another lawsuit. And to top it all off, projected lower-than-usual turnout of poll workers in a year where even more people will be voting-by-mail suggests the possibility of a chaotic election in the Buckeye state. 

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

TPM’s COVID-19 hub.
Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.
COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).
Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).
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