States Ensure Safe and Accessible Elections During COVID-19

July 29, 2020|11:33 a.m.| ASTHO Staff

In 1965, while signing the Voting Rights Act into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated that “a man without a vote is a man without protection.” However, voting is a bit more complicated this year as it can increase the chance of COVID-19 exposure and spread of infection. However, the COVID-19 pandemic should not prevent registered voters from being able to cast their votes in the upcoming election. In an election year, it is important that state and territorial health agencies and their legislative and executive counterparts provide different forms of protection as citizens exercise their right to vote this November.

In May, a nonpartisan coalition, We Can Vote, released the country’s first Healthy Voting guides, which provide up-to-date information to voters on how to safely participate in this year’s elections. The guides advise voters to cast mail ballots when available and to practice physical distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing when dropping off a ballot or casting a vote in person. In June, the CDC also issued interim guidance and considerations for election polling locations and voters. The guidance states that lower risk election polling strategies include those with: a wide variety of voting options; longer voting periods (more days and/or more hours); and any other feasible options for reducing the number of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations at the same time.

State policymakers at the executive and legislative level are also proposing legislation and issuing executive orders to protect voters’ health and promote voting through safer means. Policy trends on this issue include:

  • Establishing cleaning and distancing protocols at polling locations.
  • Authorizing and encouraging mail-in or absentee voting.
  • Allowing for pre-election voting on designated days to reduce overcrowding on election day.

Below are examples of executive and legislative activities intended to promote voter safety this election season.

Executive Orders
Arizona’s governor issued an executive order to improve voting safety and staffing by requiring that state-owned facilities be utilized as voting locations and that counties be assisted in providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and other equipment necessary to allow safe hygiene practices when voting. The executive order also enables state employees to serve as poll workers on election day without impacting their pay or leave, which will help ensure that polling locations are appropriately staffed and lines are kept short.

In California, the governor issued an executive order that all eligible voters receive a vote-by-mail ballot. It also says that counties that cannot provide the levels of in-person voting typically required by state law, which is a minimum of one in-person voting location for every 10,000 registered voters beginning the Saturday before Election Day. In addition, the executive order calls for assistance to identify and secure voting locations suitable for social distancing and to replace experienced poll workers who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Legislation
A Mississippi bill would authorize pre-election day voting by limiting the number of voters who appear to vote in person at a polling place. The voting period would begin 20 days before the date of any election held during the 2020 calendar year for public office and would continue until the Saturday immediately preceding the election day. The legislature states that pre-election day voting will help prevent long lines at polling places on election day, which will help promote social distancing and give those voters considered high risk or fear being exposed to COVID-19 a safe alternative.

The North Carolina legislature is considering a bill that would appropriate over 12 million dollars — from the federal CARES act and from the state general fund—to the State Board of Elections for the following activities: establishing healthy polling places by providing PPE; social distancing tools; cleaning and sanitizing supplies; offsetting increased costs for the projected voting by absentee ballot participation; training election employees and volunteers; and educating the public regarding election changes in response to the COVID-19 emergency. In addition, the bill would also ensure the safety of poll workers and polling places by doing the following: providing appropriate amounts and types of PPE; establishing more efficient curbside or “drive-through” voting options for those who have disabilities, are ill, or are in a high-risk category for COVID-19; and providing for efficient crowd management.

Many states are authorizing absentee mail voting. Alaska, California, Delaware, Illinois, Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah enacted bills authorizing voters to vote by mail or allows voters to electronically request and return ballot applications for both primary and general elections in 2020. Many states have similar bills pending. For example, in Massachusetts, a proposed bill would require that absentee ballots, in all languages required by law, be mailed to all voters at their residential addresses. The bill would also adopt public health safeguards at early voting sites and polling places, including required distancing of voters and election officers, frequent use of sanitizers, appropriate clothing, and use of marking pens.

Finally, legislatures are also expanding the powers of executive officials to amend election requirements or procedures due to the pandemic or declared state of emergencies. Kentucky enacted a bill allowing the governor to declare by executive order a different time, place, or manner for holding elections. Similarly, Vermont enacted a bill expanding the powers of the governor and secretary of state to order changes to election procedures for the purpose of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of voters, elections workers, and candidates in carrying out elections. Changes to procedures may include: requiring mail balloting; creating early or mail ballot collection stations; permitting clerks to process and begin counting ballots in a 30-day window preceding the day of an election; permitting drive-up, car window collection of ballots; extending time to count ballots; and extending voting hours.

Policies that encourage early voting—either by mail or in-person—will result in shorter lines and smaller crowds on Election Day. Safe cleaning practices and protective measures, such as requiring masks, will result in a healthier and more comfortable experience for voters and poll workers. These practices will not only decrease the risk of exposure and infection among voters but will also prevent eligible voters from being disenfranchised by the pandemic. As political bodies, state and territories are accountable to the public and have a responsibility to promote policies and guidelines that encourage safe and accessible voting. As experts on disease control and prevention, these agencies are also in a unique position to collaborate with policymakers and election officials to ensure that effective prevention and safety measures are established, implemented, and enforced appropriately.


Leah Silva, JD, is director of state health policy at ASTHO