Our journey through America’s varying levels of pandemic-voting preparedness continues this week with looks at Massachusetts, Missouri, Mississippi, and Rhode Island.
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.
All things considered, the Bay State seems to have actually pulled off a relatively smooth transition to pandemic voting. In July, the state passed legislation allowing every registered voter to cast a ballot by mail. Every registered voter also gets an application for a mail-in ballot sent to them. The state also expanded early voting to include the primary, and doubled the early voting period for the general election.
The result? Record turnout during the September primary, which saw a contentious race for the Democratic Senate nomination. More than 1.7 million people voted, the highest turnout as a percentage of population in 30 years, observed Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. The general election is expected to smash that number. As of Monday, nearly 1.6 million voters had requested mail-in ballots, just under a month before Election Day.
“In terms of election preparedness, I think that Massachusetts is probably in a better place than many states,” Wilmot told TPM. “Our election officials really handled it well,” she added of September’s record turnout.
The state shares some of the same concerns that have taken over the nation as of late: Will there be enough poll workers? Will everyone remember to sign their mail-in ballot envelope? Will voters manage to mail their ballots on time (postmarked by Nov. 3, arriving no later than the following Friday)?
A fairly new online portal, which voters can use to request their mail-in ballot, is another question mark: Will state officials be able to handle the tsunami of ballot requests coming in across multiple channels?
The state is a lock for Joe Biden. It’s nine congressional races and one U.S. Senate race are considered safe Democratic wins across the board. Perhaps the most closely watched contest will be the ballot initiative known as Massachusetts Question 2, which gives voters the opportunity to institute ranked choice voting for state and federal legislative races in the primary and general elections. An August WBUR poll found Massachusetts voters split 36-36% on the matter.
Missouri is currently embroiled in a flurry of lawsuits from voting advocacy groups challenging measures they say confuse voters and strip them of their right to vote.
Many of the legal challenges focus on a new vote-by-mail system passed into law by the state legislature in May. It allows anyone who wants to vote by mail, but who does not satisfy the state’s strict absentee voting excuses, to do so — with caveats. Anyone using the new vote-by-mail method must get her ballot notarized and return it via the mail, with no in-person drop off options. Most people voting the traditional absentee way need to get their ballots notarized too, though they can drop it off in person at a local election office. People who have fallen ill with COVID-19, or are at risk of falling ill to it according to a list of carefully defined factors like age or underlying conditions, can skip the notarization requirement.
One case — brought by the Missouri NAACP and Missouri League of Women Voters, and currently before the state Supreme Court — targets the notarization requirement. A lower court already sided with the defendants, claiming that there is no proof that voters having to seek out a notary is a risk to their health. The advocacy groups appealed that decision.
Another lawsuit brought in federal court by groups including the Organization for Black Struggle targets Missouri’s prohibition on no-excuse mail-in voters dropping off their ballots in person, an option available to the absentee voters who meet one of the state’s excuses.The suit also seeks to extend the ballot deadline to the Friday after Election Day, as long as the ballot was postmarked by noon on Election Day (currently, ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day to count), and to give voters notice to correct ballot mistakes.
Finally, the group American Women and some individual voters sued on the state level, targeting the notarization requirement and ballot deadline.
The confusing rules may have contributed to the relatively low share of absentee and mail-in votes the state saw in its August primary: only 16 percent. While still up significantly from the six percent that voted by mail in the 2016 primary, it’s not the explosion in absentee voting other typically low-vote by mail states saw this year. There were some in-person voting problems as well, especially in St. Louis County, the state’s most populous county. The electronic poll books used to check people in malfunctioned, affecting about 50 of the country’s 400 polling sites in the first hour or so of voting.
President Donald Trump is up in Missouri, though not by as much as one would think given his 18 percentage point landslide win over Hillary Clinton in 2016. The state is also hosting a couple other competitive races this year. The Cook Political Report reclassified the gubernatorial race to “lean Republican” from “likely Republican” last month, with state Auditor Nicole Galloway, the only statewide elected Democrat left, mounting a competitive bid against Gov. Mike Parson (R). The race for a U.S. House seat in the 2nd congressional district is also competitive, after the DCCC put it on their target flip list.
Mississippi is in for a tough election. The state’s absentee voting processes have seen meager updates to account for COVID-19, and what tweaks were made were invalidated by the state Supreme Court. The state consistently sees GOP results, though an electoral system designed to suppress the largest black population by percentage in the country contributes to that. The upshot is that the Democratic Party is not seriously contesting the state’s U.S. Senate seat or presidential electoral votes this cycle. It also faces election lawsuits seeking to expand access to the polls amid virtually no action by state lawmakers on how to vote during the pandemic.
The magnolia state is one of the few that requires voters to provide a reason for why they need an absentee ballot. There are limited exceptions, including those 65 and older. Over the summer, the Mississippi legislature added a provision for those under “physician-mandated quarantine.” But an ACLU lawsuit pushing the state to expand the quarantine exception to all Mississippians backfired once the state Supreme Court found that the exception did not apply to those at higher risk of COVID-19 but who never received a doctor’s quarantine order.
More broadly, the state likely won’t suffer delays in counting absentee ballots given that local law has effectively prevented there from being many more votes by mail than a usual general election during non-pandemic times. Those who do vote by mail (requesting an absentee ballot is a complicated process involving notarization) must ensure that the envelope is postmarked within a day of the election. And though the state did not expand its voting-by-mail regimen for the election, election precincts will come equipped with hand sanitizer and poll workers in PPE.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to reinstate Rhode Island’s witness requirements for absentee voting was a rare example of the high court ruling in favor of voter access in pandemic election disputes. That decision, coupled with recent election reforms, has put the state’s voters in a good place for dealing with the pandemic.
Rhode Island had no-excuse absentee voting well before the pandemic, but its use has skyrocketed this year. The number of votes cast by mail in the June primary more than doubled the number of mail ballots in the 2016 general election, which set the previous record for mail in voting. This year’s general is expected to quadruple the 2016 record.
Rhode Island absentee voting typically requires the signatures of two witnesses, but that mandate was waived for the outbreak as part of a court agreement the state reached when it was sued over the requirement. (The Supreme Court refused to reinstate the requirement in part because the Republican Party, rather than state officials, were requesting that the justices throw out the agreement.) The state offers a process for voters to fix other deficiencies on their ballot that might otherwise cause their rejection. It also has a deadline for requesting mail ballots that gives the U.S. Postal Service plenty of time to get ballots to and from voters.
To help deal with the uptick in vote by mail use caused by the pandemic, state election officials have also sought to centralize the task of processing and tabulating absentee ballots, so to alleviate local officials of that burden. For the general, the state is also continuing its practice during the primaries of mailing to all voters absentee ballot applications.
For those who still would prefer to vote in person, there is also an option for early in person voting, which became available only this year, though Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea had been pushing the legislature for it well before the pandemic.
Democrats hold the vast majority of the state legislative seats, and Republicans have put up candidates in fewer than half of the Democratic seats being decided in November. The bigger electoral action happened in the primary, when 10 Democratic incumbents were ousted by progressive challengers.