How easy is it for voters to safely cast ballots amid the global pandemic? That depends — like many things in election administration — on where they live.
Only a handful of the states have the infrastructure already in place to handle the expansion of mail-in voting the coronavirus is expected to bring about.
For the rest of the country, election officials will have to work aggressively to overhaul their voting procedures so that, for public health reasons, in-person interactions can be limited.
In a vast majority of states, officials will have to consider buying new equipment, retraining or hiring additional staff, revamping the current way they handle absentee ballots, and changing procedural deadlines — which in some places require the cooperation of the legislature.
Experts anticipate bumps in the road — if not major hurdles — everywhere. Whether other states repeat last week’s primary fiasco in Wisconsin will depend on how proactive policy makers are in reconfiguring their systems and what level of absentee voting they will be starting from.
Only nine states have pre-pandemic experience administering elections where over half the population voted by mail. An estimated 80 percent of voters cast absentee ballots in last week’s election in Wisconsin, where the usual absentee voting percentage is in the single digits or low teens.
“If you are under 20 or 25 percent, then it’s going to be hard to get your local jurisdictions to the point that they can really do this, especially if you’re in five percent or less,” said Colorado’s election director Judd Choate. In his state, 95 percent of ballots were cast by mail in 2018.
Colorado’s transition to a vote-by-mail state took place over several years. Dozens of states in the country will be trying to pull off the overhaul in just a few months.
Five states that already conduct vote by mail elections, and a few others, are almost there in practice.
In vote-by-mail elections — which are held in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — every registered voter is automatically mailed a ballot. Arizona, California and Montana aren’t technically vote-by-mail election states, but feature a comparable level of absentee voting or are trending in that direction. That’s because those states all offer no-excuse absentee voting and also operate permanent lists so that voters only have to sign up once to receive absentee ballots year-after-year.
All these states still offer options for in-person voting, so they might still see an increase in mail-in voting usage in November from years prior, but they’re in the best shape to adjust their procedures for the pandemic.
New Mexico also has experience running relatively large absentee elections, but is currently in a legal fight over its efforts to transform itself into a fully vote by mail state for the pandemic.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are states — about 30 in total — where the percentage of voters using absentee voting is typically in the single digits or in the teens.
But allowing people to vote by mail to protect their health is perhaps the easiest of the hurdles states will have to overcome. For some jurisdictions the obstacles for scaling up absentee voting could prove insurmountable.
The chaos in Wisconsin was a warning sign. The 1.2 million absentee ballots requested for the primary was a nearly five-fold increase from the equivalent election in 2016. Election officials scrambled to send ballots out so they could be returned in time, and for thousands of voters the turnaround wasn’t quick enough. A frenzied and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle ensued to facilitate the process.
“If we don’t actually prepare now and give them the resources, we’re going to see the same types of meltdown,” said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program.
Perhaps most concerning to election experts are the states in this category that have elections in the late spring or early summer, including those that postponed elections in the beginning of the outbreak. But even states where ballots won’t be cast again until the fall have major decisions about reworking their systems that need to be made immediately.
“Any state where you’re in the single digits, which is roughly half the states, are in a position where they need to be planning now to expand,” said Charles Stewart, an MIT political science professor whose expertise include elections. Battleground states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Hampshire are among those where absentee voting is usually extremely low.
There’s a third, middle-ground category of states where mail-in voting is common, but still makes up only a quarter or a third of the ballots cast. States like this include Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa.
Election officials there might have a better idea of what it will take to ramp up their procedures for when a majority of their voters cast ballots via mail. But even in these states, some counties will be better off than others, and major changes to how they administer elections are still needed.
For instance, in Florida — which ranked 11th in the country in 2018 for its mail-in voting rates — county election officials sounded the alarm last week that exemptions from the state’s election laws were necessary.
“I’m really worried about these small rural jurisdictions out there, whether or not you’re gonna be able to execute this,” Michael McDonald, an elections expert and University of Florida professor, said. “Florida’s saying they’re not ready. We have a third of voters voting by mail. How is a state that isn’t at Florida’s level going to do it?”