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Policy Summary

With election day less than eight months away and primary races in many states already delayed or pushed further out on the calendar, concern is mounting about how an election can be conducted under the current or even more draconian restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senators Amy Klobucher (D-Minnesota) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) have introduced the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 which provides funding and guidance for states, counties and localities to quickly move to vote-by-mail elections. The legislation also strongly discourages on-line balloting efforts which it deems insecure.

Analysis

The November 3, 2020 election will feature not only a presidential matchup but contests for 35 Senate seats, all 435 members of the House of Representative, 11 gubernatorial races and countless state, county and municipal offices.  Each of these jurisdictions are governed by their own set of regulations and procedures and each have experimented with different methods of counting this vote; internet, early voting periods, absentee ballots and general vote-by-mail.

While the amount of documented election fraud in recent years has been infrequent, there is widespread concern that paper-less balloting is easy to perpetrate and hard to detect. Election districts have been moving away from this method. The Klobuchar / Wyden bill seeks to jumpstart a national debate about mail-in ballots as the default method for voting.

In the age of COVID-19, however, there are justifiable concerns about how an election can be carried out safely and fairly guaranteeing the health of voters, poll workers, and the integrity of the election. Clearly we are unprepared for this set of circumstances. The 2016 election saw a participation rate of 61.4% but this is unlikely to be matched if COVID-19 raises additional barriers to participation.

One solution will not solve this problem, but like businesses and institutions throughout the country, hybrid solutions need to be put into place to ensure that the election takes place, participation is maximized and integrity is insured. Fortunately, we do have the technology.

The National Vote at Home Institute has been advocating for mail in ballots for all voters. They envision a system where all voters are mailed ballots and can return them by mail, deposit them in authorized drop-boxes or drop them off at polling stations. Each ballot can be tracked by a phone app so that the voter can determine that their vote has been counted.

This strategy alone will not work. We also need to extend voting hours, increase the number of polling places, ease restrictions on absentee balloting for those that have chosen to relocate during this crisis and, in some limited circumstances, allow internet voting.

Taking this approach will reduce exposure at polling places ad make the voting process more accessible to those that have been unable to vote in the past due to weather, transportation, work or other competing obligations. In the end, COVID-19 could provide the impetus we need to remove barriers to voting and make our voter turnout rate the envy of the world.

Resistance Resources

  1. Vote@Home – A nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization, the National Vote at Home Institute is dedicated to ensuring the security of our elections and putting voters’ needs first.
  2. The National Council of State Legislatures has a Guide to implementing all mail elections.
  3. Vote.org uses technology to simplify political engagement, increase voter turnout, and strengthen American democracy.
  4. The MIT Election Data and Science Lab has a Guide to Elections and Covid-19
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