The U.S. response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus offers the world a window onto its decentralized form of government. How the country conducts its 2020 election at a time of social distancing will showcase both how this system works and when it doesn’t. The lack of federal standards, rules, and laws in the primary process has already led to disparate outcomes, with some states, such as Arizona, holding primary elections with emergency modifications, and others, including Louisiana, postponing because they do not believe they are equipped to conduct their elections safely.

Delaying the general presidential election in November, however, would almost certainly be explosively divisive and logistically impossible. The president and a divided Congress would have to pass a law changing the date, an outcome that is very hard to imagine. The election must go on, and the priority of federal, state, and local lawmakers must be to make sure that the extraordinary circumstances of the moment do not impede the election from being fair.

The pandemic cannot be allowed to prevent Americans from voting with the confidence that their ballots will be counted. In order to ensure that it doesn’t, the United States must seal up the gaps in funding and resources for election administration across the country. Local and state governments are going to need to retool their voting systems to allow as many eligible voters to participate as possible under the circumstances. Congress needs to give them the money for those preparations while setting minimum guidelines for mail voting, early voting, and other coronavirus-proof processes for this November. The importance of these preparations is hard to overstate. The American public’s trust in government depends on fair, open, secure elections—the coronavirus cannot be allowed to derail U.S. democracy.

The Remote Election

With adequate federal funding, and a major effort on the part of election officials and governments across the country, the United States can make the necessary preparations before November. There are more than 8,000 election jurisdictions, and the demographics, policies, and voting resources of these jurisdictions vary. But the task before all of them is the same. They must protect voter registration, provide a vote-by-mail option to all eligible voters, and ensure that in-person voting can be conducted safely. The necessary shifts will call on old technology and new; they will cost money and require logistical advance work. But these are outlays too important to shortchange or delay.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, could severely disrupt the process by which Americans update their voter registrations or register to vote for the first time. Millions of voters normally undertake this process in the months and weeks before every presidential election. Current circumstances will make it difficult for Americans to submit timely registration applications and for election officials to process them. The outbreak could disable voter registration drives, and it will certainly reduce access to government offices that provide voter registration services.

Fortunately, 39 states and Washington, D.C., offer online voter registration, which can substitute for the more typical mailed forms. These online systems are likely to see more than their customary use, so they should be tested and upgraded to handle surges in traffic. In certain states, the systems still require some manual processing and will need to be automated end to end. Other states do not yet have online voter registration. They will need to build such systems in time for voters to register for the November elections. States that cannot or will not be able to set up a centralized online registration portal should explore alternative, secure electronic methods of voter registration. Of course, not all voters have reliable Internet access—and states must invest in voter outreach, education, and mailings to keep voter registration fully up-to-date.

In the coming months, election officials will need to fortify the security and capacity of online registration systems. They must try to minimize the risk of attacks, say, that attempt to alter information or deny service during heavy registration periods, and they should work to ensure that the systems themselves don’t become overwhelmed, because many were probably not built for the heavy surge in traffic they may see this summer and fall. To make sure the data are accurate, officials should conduct regular audits and encourage voters to check their registration information.

The actual process of voting is likely to happen by mail in many precincts. But not every state is ready for that. Last week, two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, introduced a bill that would require all states to provide voters the option of mailing in their ballots, regardless of their reasons for doing so. Thirty-three states already have this provision, including five—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—that conduct their elections entirely by mail, meaning that a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). In 17 states, however, voting by mail is less common, and voters must meet specified criteria before they are allowed to use mail ballots.

Offering all eligible Americans the option to vote by mail will require an investment of at least $2 billion.

Offering all eligible Americans the option to vote by mail—along with other needed modifications to our election system—will require an investment of at least $2 billion. The amount is small relative to the trillion-dollar federal stimulus package under discussion. But whether Congress understands how much money is needed or how soon is not clear: in the latest coronavirus stimulus package, Senate Republicans proposed giving the states just $140 million to ensure that they can run credible elections this fall; House Democrats countered with a pool of $4 billion from which states could draw through 2021.

Consider that states will need to invest not only in ballots, envelopes, and postage for all registered voters but also in critical infrastructure, such as ballot-tracking software (which will allow citizens to vote securely and with confidence), equipment for sorting and counting mail ballots (because the systems are different from those that count ballots in polling places), and new, secure storage for all of these materials. To purchase and deploy these materials will take months, so time is of the essence.

Even in states accustomed to vote-by-mail, the effects of COVID-19 may necessitate new policies for processing and counting mail ballots. For example, states may need to relax their deadlines for requesting and returning ballots because of government office closures, mail slowdowns, and other disruptions. They must also budget more time to count a substantially greater volume of these types of ballots. Every precinct will need to pay special attention to be sure that its process for evaluating whether a mail ballot is valid is fair and uniform.

There is a possible side benefit to having more voters mail in ballots: fewer will then cast their votes on vulnerable, paperless voting systems. But safeguarding mail voting requires forethought and funds. States will need secure technology that allows voters to request absentee ballots by phone or Internet; ballot-tracking software that provides confidence that ballots are reaching the appropriate destination in a timely manner; and secure drop boxes in accessible locations, for voters who cannot or do not wish to rely on the post office to drop off ballots directly.

Open Polls

As important as it will be to increase the use of mail in U.S. elections, mail cannot replace all in-person voting by November. Indeed, the five states with all-mail balloting took many years to achieve that goal. The purpose of providing a mail-voting option is to reduce the need for in-person voting. More mail voting will mean less crowded polling places, but it won’t displace the polling station altogether. 

Vote-by-mail isn’t feasible for everyone—say, for those without Internet or mail access to request or receive ballots, those living in Native American communities, those who need language assistance to vote, and people with disabilities who rely on voting machines to cast a private and independent ballot. These and other voters may be disenfranchised if all polling locations are closed. No one knows what the COVID-19 pandemic will look like in November, but states and localities need to be prepared to operate polling stations in a manner consistent with public health.

There is another reason to keep the polling stations open. As demonstrated by the disorder that followed the Iowa caucuses, any system used for the first time is likely to have its share of failures. Switching to an entirely new system—instead of modifying the current system, even in extraordinary ways—increases the likelihood and the impact of those failures. To the extent that the United States can conduct elections in the way that is most familiar to tens of millions of voters, as well as to election officials, it should do so.

Keeping polling stations safe requires planning. Some states already allow early voting to begin at least 14 days before Election Day. Extending that period, and making it available in the 23 states that don’t yet have early voting, can help keep crowding under control. To keep the polls fully staffed, even if some workers fall ill, states should recruit poll workers from across a wide age span. Election officials should build on the experience many have already garnered in the primaries with sanitizing polling places, reconfiguring them to allow for social distancing, and relocating them away from vulnerable populations.

The coronavirus outbreak could devastate the 2020 election without early action to protect its functioning. Congress and election jurisdictions across the country must make urgent preparations now. The decentralization of the U.S. election system cannot become an excuse to leave any voter behind. The necessary funding is a drop in the bucket—and it is the investment the United States must make to preserve its democracy.   

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  • LAWRENCE NORDEN is Director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
  • MAX FELDMAN is Counsel in the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
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