Voting During COVID-19

Voting by-mail and the VoteSafe Act of 2020.

Photo by Steve Houghton-Burnett on Unsplash

Introduction

COVID-19 has significantly impacted how we go about our everyday lives. A major concern in the United States has been how the virus will affect state and local elections, especially with the upcoming presidential election this fall. Many states such as New York have delayed their Primary election dates by two months in order to keep their populace safe from the coronavirus. However, other states like Wisconsin, have not been so lucky. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a court order in Wisconsin that would have extended the absentee voting period. This forced many to have to vote in-person. A consequence of this was unsafe conditions due to reduced polling locations, long lines, and long wait times.

A solution put forth by Sen. Kamala Harris [D-CA] to combat this is to expand the accessibility of mail-in ballots for all voters. Another step that Sen. Harris says can be done is to increase funding for polling locations. This would allow states to increase polling locations which would curb overcrowding, make sure machines can be adequately disinfected, and that the staff at polling locations have enough PPE to stay safe.

Mail-In Ballots

What Are Mail-In Ballots?

Currently, only 5 out of the 50 states (Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah¹, and Hawaii) have a mail-in ballot system called “All-Mail” voting. This system of voting allows states to mail ballots to eligible voters without a request or application needed. The voter fills out their ballot and they mail it back. This way, if one is not able to vote in person at the polls for any reason, they can go ahead and mail in their vote. Now, all states allow some form of mail-in voting, usually called “Absentee Voting.” How this differs from All-Mail voting is that a voter must request an Absentee ballot and if they qualify, they are sent a ballot, in most cases, by mail². Absentee voting also may require ‘an excuse’ as to why that voter will not be able to vote in-person on election day. Currently, in 34 states³ (including the 5 listed above) and the District of Columbia, they have implemented ‘no excuse’ absentee voting, where the voter does not have to provide a reason as to why they will not be voting in-person. Yet, they must make a formal request before a specified date in order to receive a ballot to vote.

According to the Election Administration And Voting Survey 2018 Comprehensive Report, 25.8% of election participants voted by mail-in ballots (absentee and all-mail voting), which was roughly thirty-one million voters. The three All Vote-by-mail states of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington had by-mail turnout rates at or near 100 percent; these three states accounted for 24.2 percent of the by-mail ballots cast in the 2018 general elections.It is obvious that people who have access to the All-Mail voting system are utilizing this method of voting, and during this time of statewide lockdowns, it may make elections more feasible for voters. In fact, with the emergence of COVID-19, 65% of Americans support vote-by-mail according to a recent poll conducted by USA TODAY and Suffolk University.

And this year, two swing states, Michigan and Pennsylvania have decided to implement ‘no-excuse’ absentee ballots. This would now allow voters to request mail-in ballots without needing a valid excuse as to why that voter could not vote in-person. With how important these two states are during the presidential election, I would be curious to see how many people vote by absentee ballots this fall due to COVID-19.

Who Uses Mail-In Ballots?

One interesting part of this discussion of mail-in ballots is President Trump’s opposition to it.

Trump himself voted in the Florida Primary by absentee ballot….

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting…”

For example, in Arizona, Republicans request to vote by mail more than Democrats. In a letter sent to voters in key states by the Republican National Committee, the message read, “Voting by mail is an easy, convenient and secure way to cast your ballot. Return the attached official Republican Party mail-in ballot application to avoid lines and protect yourself from large crowds on Election Day.” Voting by mail has been a strategy that Republicans have used in order to get out the vote among their constituents. In an article by the Tampa Bay Times, Professor Daniel Smith from the University of Florida found that mail-in ballots cast by young voters, blacks, and Latinos were more likely to be rejected than ballots cast by white voters. In Florida, almost half (48%) of all white voters are Republicans, while people of color tend to identify as Democrats.⁴ Not only are Republicans requesting to vote by mail more often, but their votes are also more likely to be counted. For Republicans, voting by mail is an effective strategy, and I can only imagine with COVID-19, why expanding voting by mail may be necessary.

I want to point out another reason why Trump calling on Republicans to oppose mail-in ballots may go against his own interests.

Age!

Age is a major factor in who uses mail-in ballots. During the 2016 election, Trump had an advantage among voters aged 50+.⁵ In data found in the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), voters in the age group 65+ voted more by mail-in ballots (absentee, all-mail voting) than any other age group during the 2016 election.⁶ What I found really interesting looking at this dataset was that this same age group( 65+ years old) is also the most likely to oppose the expansion of mail-in ballot policies compared to any other age group.

It is important to consider age not just in the context of mail-in voting, but also voting in the time of COVID-19. In the Morning Consult poll,74% of voters aged 65+ responded that they would be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat concerned’ about voting in-person if the coronavirus were still a threat in November. And they should be worried. According to data from the CDC’s website, adults aged 60+ are the most affected by COVID-19.

I bring these points up not just to show how ironic Trump’s resistance to mail-in ballots is, especially after looking at how successful it is for his supporters in states like Florida or Arizona⁷, but to illustrate how the message of opposing mail-in ballots during this current health crisis could negatively affect Trump’s voters in other states. States that recently elected Democratic governors, and legislatures, who are trying to make access to mail-in ballots easier for everyone during the coronavirus.

One example has been Kentucky, a state whose electoral votes have gone to every Republican presidential candidate during the last five presidential elections. Yet, with the recent election of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear over Republican Matt Bevin, Beshear signed an executive order allowing Kentuckians to participate in mail-in voting without needing an excuse to vote due to COVID-19 ⁸.

For other states such as Minnesota, where members of the Republican leadership are opposing expanding mail-in ballot policies, it could mean that many voters who voted for Trump during the 2016 election may find themselves too afraid to vote in person due to fear of contracting the virus.

Personally, I support expanding mail-in ballot policies, more so because of the coronavirus. I have voted in-person in every election (presidential, state, and local elections) since I turned 18. Yet, as someone with a pre-existing condition and who lives with someone that is vulnerable to the virus, I do worry about voting in-person this time around. I would like to have the option to vote by mail for my own safety. I live in NY State, and thankfully Gov. Cuomo signed an executive order allowing voters in NY to receive mail-in ballots for the presidential primary.

Currently, there is a bill that has passed the House of Representatives called the VoteSafe Act of 2020. Senator Kamala Harris has her own version of the bill in the Senate which hopes to expand mail-in ballot initiatives along with other logistical and security measures for the upcoming election.

VoteSafe Act of 2020

Introduction

For the sake of this post, I am going to focus on the VoteSafe Act of 2020 as it pertains to mail-in ballots and in-person voting, but there are other parts of the bill that discusses election security as well. I will be reviewing the bill put forth by Kamala Harris in the Senate. There is a version that was introduced in the House of Representatives by [D-CA] Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

The VoteSafe Act of 2020 authorizes a budget of $5 billion dollars to improve the current infrastructure of elections (i.e voting machine cybersecurity, software patches for current machines, a fund for new machines for states that need them, paper ballot backup requirements for elections, etc. ) and to expand the accessibility of mail-in ballots of all states.

Mail-In Ballots

Section 3 of the bill is where support for improving the mail-in ballot infrastructure and policies are cited. The first part is:

  • permit ‘no-excuse’ absentee ballots in all states and jurisdictions.

This would allow everyone that is not a part of the ‘all-mail’ voting system the ability to request absentee ballots without an excuse, which in some cases even requires a notary. This would ensure that people could vote without fear of voting in-person, especially those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

There are also provisions in the bill to make mail-in voting more accessible to every type of voter such as the disabled or for those who may not be entirely proficient in English.

  • For voters with disabilities, they can vote remotely through the Remote Access Vote By Mail (RAVBM). It is a ballot reading software that aids the voter in marking their ballot. The voter must then print out and send back the ballot in the mail.
  • Voters with disabilities can also receive assistance from a person of their choosing in order to complete their vote and then mail in the ballot.
  • The VoteSafe Act also aims to make sure that the mail-in ballots are written in multiple languages and allow for language assistance services.

The bill goes into how to remedy these issues with mail-in ballots as well.

  • If the ballot has any error such as a mismatching signature or even missing a signature, then the voter should be notified and be provided the opportunity to fix the issue.
  • If election officials are trying to determine the validity of the ballot, it must be looked at by a group of two or more officials.
  • If the ballot is rejected, the voter is allowed to appeal the rejection.

In-Person Voting

While expanding mail-in ballots is a good idea and an option many people should have, some people prefer to vote in-person. For those who would rather go cast their votes at their polling place, we need to make sure that they and the officials who are working at the polling place are protected.

During the recent election in Wisconsin, the U.S Supreme refused to extend the date for absentee voting causing many to have to vote in-person and this resulted in long lines, long wait times, overcrowding inside the polling location, and reduced staff. One way the VoteSafe Act hopes to help with this is:

  • Make early voting at least 20 days in all states.

As of now, the time period can vary on a state by state basis from 10–45 days before an election, with some states like Kentucky not having early voting. With every state having at least twenty days of mandatory early voting, it could reduce the overcrowding issue and give everyone the ability to vote on a schedule that suits them. This twenty-day period must also include one Saturday and one Sunday and be open for a minimum of ten hours including times before and after the standard workday.

When it comes to making sure that the polling locations are safe for in-person voters, the bill will require that:

  • Each state creates a plan to ensure that all of its polling locations follow the guidelines set forth by the CDC relating to COVID-19.
  • The bill also requires that each state keep as many polling locations open in order to accommodate voters. They must also comply with social distancing protocols that are in the CDC guidelines both in lines and in the voting booths.
  • The polling locations must have enough cleaning supplies, disposable ballot marking materials, and PPE for the poll workers.
  • In addition, the poll workers are to be provided with additional compensation during the pandemic and training on pandemic conditions and preparedness.

The goal is to make sure each polling location does not find itself understaffed as it did in Illinois, causing voting time to be longer.

Another solution that the bill acknowledges is the popularity of curbside interactions. This bill takes the same concept that businesses have been using to interact with their customers during COVID-19 and applies it to voting in the form of Curbside Voting.

  • The voter can pick up their ballots, complete them in their car, and then return the ballot to a poll worker from their car.

Thus, allowing for fewer people needing to go inside of the polling places.

Conclusion

These are all the ways the VoteSafe Act of 2020 aims to help make voting more accessible for voters this coming presidential election. Now, it is not for certain that this bill will ever become law. However, after reading much of the sensible ideas laid out in the bill, my hope is that it will inspire many states to enact some version of it for their own elections. It is my wish that the leadership of each state put the safety and health of their constituents first, rather than focus on partisanship.

More Questions

  1. I think the first question to ask ourselves is how do we logistically expand mail-in voting when many states are just ending their lockdown or may still have a lockdown order in place? And how does that occur in time for people to cast votes for the upcoming presidential election?
  2. I mentioned in an earlier section of this post about people of color and young voters being at a disadvantage when it comes to mail-in votes. How do we make sure that is not an issue? How can we make sure people feel confident their vote will be counted correctly?
  3. Also, what will be the role of technology going forward for those who vote in-person post-COVID-19? Microsoft has recently come up with a piece of open-source technology called ElectionGuard. Each vote is encrypted and given a unique identifier. The voter is given a tracking code that will allow them to check that their vote gets counted unchanged in the final tally. This will not be used in the 2020 presidential Election but may be useful for future elections. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/22/tech/microsoft-election-guard-voting-test/index.html

Footnotes

¹Has all-vote-by-mail elections in select local jurisdictions.

² They can also be sent by email in some jurisdictions.

³National Conference of State Legislatures: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah*, Vermont, Virginia, Washington*, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Pew Research Center on Party Affiliation in Florida by Race

Trump had an advantage among 50- to 64-year-old voters (51% to 45%) and those 65 and older (53% to 44%).

⁶ Age Groups: (18–34) (35–64) (65+)

⁷ electoral votes for both states went to Trump in the 2016 election.

⁸ This executive order according to the Courier-Journal had bipartisan support.

References

National Conference of State Legislatures

Election Administration And Voting Survey 2018 Comprehensive Report

VoteSafe Act 2020

USA Today and Suffolk University Poll

Morning Consult

Cooperative Congressional Election Study

Pew Research Center electorate 2016

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