States Must Act Now To Fortify Elections Against Coronavirus

Voters wait in line to enter a polling location in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020.

Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides $400 million in emergency funding to help states prepare their elections for the COVID-19 pandemic. While November’s election may seem far away, it is critical that states start acting now to make sure as many of their residents as possible can vote by mail. Additionally, states must take steps to expand in-person and early voting options for those who need it and to provide resources for online and same-day registration.

As noted in a previous Center for American Progress column, most election systems are not equipped to handle a public health crisis such as this pandemic. States must therefore update electoral procedures in ways that preserve the fundamental right to vote, while keeping voters, election workers, and communities safe. This is no easy task; for most states, fortifying elections against the pandemic will require significant changes in electoral policy and infrastructure.

Experts estimate that states need billions—not millions—of dollars in federal funding to implement necessary measures for administering elections during this public health crisis. The $400 million provided by Congress is only a down payment; much more is needed to ensure the country is adequately prepared to conduct elections under these unusual conditions.

Over the coming months, state officials will decide how to utilize these funds. In doing so, states must prioritize changes that will have the biggest impact. This column outlines steps that states should take now to ensure Americans can cast ballots that count, while mitigating public health concerns.

Increase vote by mail

To these ends, it is absolutely imperative that states greatly expand opportunities to vote by mail. Indeed, expanding vote by mail must be the top priority for states moving forward. During a pandemic such as this, Americans must have the option to vote from home or from isolated facilities. Public health experts agree that social distancing is key to stemming the spread of the virus; it is unconscionable to ask voters to stand in long lines or at crowded polling places to cast their ballots.

For most states, building out the infrastructure to handle mass surges in mailed ballots will be a difficult task. Today, just five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state—have some form of universal vote by mail, wherein ballots are automatically sent to qualified voters. Beyond this, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, just three other states saw more than half of all voters cast ballots by mail during the 2016 and 2018 elections: Arizona, California, and Montana.

In most of the remaining 42 states and Washington, D.C., mailed ballots accounted for fewer than 20 percent of all votes cast in previous elections. These localities will need to make considerable upgrades to their election infrastructure, requiring time and resources; the federal government must act quickly to provide states with the additional funding they need.

Retain in-person and expand early voting options

Beyond expanding vote by mail, it is important that states also retain in-person voting options for individuals who need them. Some Americans with disabilities, Native American communities, and individuals relying on same-day voter registration require in-person options in order to vote.

In preserving in-person voting options for those who need them, states must commit a portion of federal funding to executing at least two weeks of early voting. Expanding opportunities to vote by mail would almost certainly lead to fewer people choosing to vote in person, thereby helping to prevent long lines or crowds from forming at polling places. But for those who need to vote in person, increasing the total number of days that people can vote would reduce the likelihood of groups congregating at individual polling places on Election Day. With early voting, in-person voters would be dispersed across several days, which would help support social distancing at voting locations. Unfortunately, eight states still lack any form of early voting. Without early voting, voters in these states could be put at risk if they choose to cast a ballot in person in upcoming elections.

Improve voter registration

It is also important that states dedicate federal funding toward improving voter registration. Although barriers in the voter registration process prevent Americans from casting ballots every election, they will pose an even bigger problem this year. The pandemic is likely to cause postal delays and confusion over registration deadlines. Moreover, many get-out-the-vote efforts that assist in registering people to vote, such as registration drives on college campuses or at public gatherings, have been canceled due to COVID-19.

During a pandemic, states must make registering to vote as safe and convenient as possible. In doing so, they must invest in sensible policies such as online voter registration, which allows individuals to register to vote from the safety of their own homes and avoid potential postal delays.

Another key policy, same-day voter registration, will help prevent Americans from being blocked from voting due to arbitrary registration deadlines. Same-day registration allows individuals to register to vote at the same time as they cast their ballot, serving as an important safeguard for Americans who may miss registration deadlines set weeks or even a month before Election Day. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, eight states still do not require online voter registration, and 28 states lack same-day voter registration. By failing to implement commonsense registration policies during the pandemic, countless Americans will be blocked from participating in upcoming elections.

Conclusion

The policies detailed in this column are critical for safeguarding America’s election system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The $400 million provided by Congress in the CARES Act allows states to begin making these necessary changes, but billions more is needed to be fully prepared. In the absence of additional funding, American citizens will be denied the right to participate in the democratic process. People should not be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote this year.

Danielle Root is the associate director of voting rights and access to justice on the Democracy and Government team at the Center for American Progress.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.