In Expanding Vote by Mail, States Must Maintain In-Person Voting Options During the Coronavirus Pandemic

"I Voted" stickers sit on a table during a presidential primary election in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020.

This is a joint publication between the Center for American Progress and the NAACP.

Authors’ note: CAP uses “Black” and “African American” interchangeably throughout many of our products. We chose to capitalize “Black” in order to reflect that we are discussing a group of people and to be consistent with the capitalization of “African American.” 

To protect the integrity of the electoral process during the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials are considering steps to help ensure Americans can exercise the fundamental right to vote and cast ballots that count in upcoming elections. In particular, officials have called for expanding opportunities to vote by mail—a critical, commonsense step that states should prioritize in order to help protect the health and safety of voters and poll workers alike. Unfortunately, some officials have coupled this call with efforts to reduce or even eliminate in-person polling places, which could potentially deny access to the ballot for millions of Americans.

Making it easier for people to cast ballots from their homes is vital for helping to stem outbreaks and for ensuring that people who are quarantined or acting as caregivers during these difficult times can participate in the democratic process. That said, in expanding vote by mail, officials must be careful to maintain, and in some cases even expand, in-person voting options. Eliminating or reducing in-person options would inadvertently disenfranchise many African American voters, voters with disabilities, American Indian and Alaska Native voters, and those who rely on same-day voter registration.

The purpose of this column is to illustrate how holding elections carried out solely by mail, without in-person options, would negatively affect certain communities. To prevent the disenfranchisement of American citizens, any expansion of vote by mail must include preservation of in-person voting options for people who need them. This column also offers guidance for administering mail-based elections in ways that are inclusive and accessible for all through adoption of commonsense policies.

Specifically, it recommends that the following actions be taken with respect to vote-by-mail elections:

  • Preserve in-person voting options, including by providing at least two weeks of early voting and designating voting locations on tribal lands.
  • Expand opportunities to register to vote online and implement same-day voter registration.
  • Establish ballot-tracking programs and nondiscriminatory signature verification standards.
  • Eliminate overly burdensome requirements for absentee ballots.
  • Launch robust voter education initiatives on new voting policies.

Vote-by-mail systems must include in-person voting options

While vote by mail is an option that works for many Americans, it is not a viable option for everyone. Specifically, eliminating all in-person voting options would disproportionately harm African American voters, voters with disabilities, American Indian and Alaska Native voters, and those who rely on same-day voter registration.

To prevent the inadvertent disenfranchisement of countless eligible Americans, some in-person voting options must remain available as part of any vote-by-mail system. At a minimum, voters should have access to at least two weeks of in-person early voting, which would help to reduce long lines and crowding at polling places.

There are a number of in-person voting options from which states and localities can choose, including traditional polling places, vote centers, and curbside or drive-up voting. By working with election officials, public health experts, voting advocates, and infectious disease specialists, states can choose the in-person voting options that work best for their voting-eligible population.

  • Black Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged by vote by mail: Black Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged by elections conducted exclusively by mail because (1) they are more likely to have changed their address and (2) they traditionally rely on in-person voting. Across all U.S. census racial and ethnic classifications, Black Americans are least likely to use vote-by-mail options. During the 2018 midterm elections, only about 11 percent of Black voters cast ballots by mail, compared with 23.5 percent of white voters. In order to vote by mail, an individual must first receive a ballot at their address, which may prove challenging for people who frequently move or lack permanent addresses. Black Americans have the highest move rates in the United States and are about 3 percentage points more likely to move than their white counterparts. Additionally, African Americans account for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. homeless population—those who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For voters who frequently move or lack permanent addresses, in-person voting options often offer the only means by which they can cast a ballot. Furthermore, eliminating in-person options, including early and Sunday voting, likely will have negative effects on voter turnout among Black Americans given their historic reliance on such policies dating back to the civil rights era. During the 2018 midterm election, more than one-fifth of Black voters relied on in-person early voting, while 66 percent voted in-person on Election Day.
  • Voters with disabilities require in-person accommodations: For the 1 in 6 voting-age people living with a disability, voting by mail may not be ideal or accessible. This is particularly true for individuals who are blind as well as those with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities who may require in-person accommodations to vote privately. Many resources that these voters need to vote independently and cast a secret ballot can often only be found at in-person polling places or vote centers. There, voters who are blind or visually impaired have access to accessible voting equipment, including audio ballots and touch screens with enlarged text. Electronic assistance mechanisms, such as ballot marking devices, are also exclusively available at in-person voting locations and needed by voters with arm impairments who have difficulty hand-marking paper ballots. Eliminating all in-person voting options would force many voters with disabilities to rely on others to mark their ballots for them, making them vulnerable to exploitation or abuse. Like all voters, people with disabilities have a right to cast a secret ballot and vote privately. That right must be preserved in any vote-by-mail system. For in-person voting, all polling places should ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) checklist provided by the U.S. Department of Justice
  • People living on tribal lands may not have access to reliable postal service: Elections conducted solely by mail can also prove problematic for American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) voters. More than 1 in 5 AI/AN people live on reservations or other land trusts. Many living on tribal lands do not have official street addresses and rely on P.O. boxes, which are sometimes shared, to send and receive mail. In order to submit voted ballots, residents in these remote areas often need to travel a long way to reach their postal office or the official polling station at the county seat. This journey can be especially arduous for those who do not own automobiles. In Utah, for example, residents of the Navajo Nation may have to travel more than an hour to check their P.O. boxes. In Nevada, more than 1 in 4 American Indians report that distance and difficulty traveling are significant barriers to registration and voting. In fact, some members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Walker River Paiute Tribe had to travel almost 100 miles round-trip to vote, before a federal court granted them relief. As such, residents may only check their mail once or twice a month, making it difficult to obtain and return ballots by required deadlines. While vote by mail should be an option, counties and states must allow flexibility. To prevent disenfranchisement, AI/AN populations must be authorized to designate in-person ballot distribution and collection sites on tribal lands. Another option is to establish well-advertised and conveniently located satellite polling locations within 20 miles of reservations.
  • In-person voting options are necessary for voters using same-day voter registration: Same-day voter registration is vital for ensuring that eligible Americans who may otherwise miss voter registration deadlines can still vote on Election Day; moreover, it is proven to increase voter participation. During the 2016 general elections, 1.3 million Americans relied on some form of same-day voter registration to cast their ballot. Same-day registration—which allows voters to register and cast ballots at the same time—will be especially important for elections held this year, given that many Americans are likely to miss pre-Election Day registration deadlines due to problems and concerns posed by the pandemic. Same-day voter registration is particularly important for young Americans and first-time voters who are relatively new the voting process and often less familiar with registration requirements. An October 2012 poll from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that 40 percent of young voters were uncertain of their state’s voter registration deadline. For logistical reasons, voters wishing to use same-day voter registration can only do so in-person at designated voting locations. By eliminating all in-person voting options, countless Americans would be prevented from using this important policy and from casting ballots.

Steps can be taken to keep in-person voting locations safe

While there are legitimate public health concerns that must be addressed in conducting in-person voting during a pandemic, steps can be taken to mitigate risks for voters and election workers. For instance, by providing alternatives to in-person voting, expanded vote by mail should help prevent long lines or crowds from forming at polling places.

Similarly, requiring at least 14 days of early voting—and increasing the overall number of polling places—would help to reduce lines by dispersing voters across several days and locations. Indeed, early voting offers benefits in any election, but especially during a public health crisis. In addition to reducing the time voters have to stand in line, early voting reduces the number of people visiting the polling location on election day, which helps to reduce the number of individuals coming in contact with poll workers. For instance, in 2016, 17 percent of all votes were cast at in-person early voting locations. If early voting is eliminated, millions of voters could be forced to gather at crowded polling places on Election Day. Early voting also provides more options to seniors and people with disabilities in terms of their need and availability of assistance or support at the polls as well as their access to transportation. Lastly, expanding early voting may help to increase participation, especially among communities that rely on this form of voting to promote civic engagement, including African Americans.

Moreover, complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention polling place guidance and other public health guidelines, including by ensuring election workers receive robust training on properly sanitizing equipment and social distancing, can help to mitigate public health risks. Polling locations must be fully stocked with sanitary supplies that are readily available to all who enter, and poll workers must be provided with protective gear, such as masks and gloves. Reliance on electronic touch-screen voting machines, which can harbor germs, should be limited, and accessibility should be prioritized in the selection process for equipment.  Furthermore, all equipment and machinery must be thoroughly sanitized between each use to help diminish health risks. Polling locations should be positioned on or near public transportation routes and can be designed to ensure that internal voting stations are separated by at least six feet, and voters can be directed to keep their distance from one another as they wait their turn to vote. Finally, in-person voting locations can limit the number of people allowed to enter at one time by setting maximum capacity at 10 people, including election workers—making exceptions for personal care attendants, sign language interpreters, and other ADA-mandated accommodations.

Expanded vote by mail must be paired with other policies to encourage voting

Vote by mail cannot be implemented in a vacuum; it is not enough to simply ensure that all eligible voters have access to an absentee or mailed ballot. For mail-based voting to be truly successful, it must be paired with several other programs in order to ensure that voted ballots are properly counted and that all voters can make full and effective use of the new system.

In particular, elections conducted largely by mail must be coupled with the following measures:

  • Online voter registration: The focus to date has largely been on how people will cast ballots in upcoming elections, but steps must also be taken to ensure that they can register to vote. While most states have implemented online voter registration, there remain a handful of states that have not. In 2016, online voter registration accounted for 17 percent of all voter registrations. Online registration ensures that Americans can have their names added to the voter rolls even if postal services are halted or delayed due to the virus. In addition to protecting the right to vote, online registration can save jurisdictions millions due to reductions in the costs associated with producing paper voter registration forms, hiring poll workers to process registrations, and more.
  • Same-day voter registration: As described in previous sections, voter registration deadlines occurring days or weeks before Election Day are likely to be a huge barrier to voting this year. In 2018, nearly 1 million were prevented from voting due to registration problems; this year, that number will likely be much higher as a result of the pandemic. Many voters only learn of registration deadlines through in-person get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, which are likely to be significantly scaled back or eliminated altogether due to social distancing. For example, registration efforts geared toward college students will be completely eliminated this year due to college campus closures designed to stop the spread of the virus. Additionally, Americans who are ill, acting as caregivers, or otherwise absorbed in responding to the pandemic will not have registration deadlines at top of mind. Same-day voter registration must be adopted to account for this and to ensure that all Americans can register to vote and cast ballots in upcoming elections.
  • Ballot-tracking programs: Numerous problems can arise when elections are conducted largely by mail. For instance, it is easy for ballots that have been sent or returned to get lost in the mail or for voters to forget to include key information on their voted ballot, which can prevent it from being counted. Ballots getting lost may be a particularly common occurrence this year due to potential postal delays as well as other complications attributed to increased demand on postal services. This is why mail-based voting systems must include ballot-tracking programs that allow voters to track their ballots through every step of the process, from the moment they request a ballot to the time it is counted. If there is an issue with their voted ballot, voters should be notified immediately by at least two forms of communication and be given the chance to fix any mistakes before certification.
  • Nondiscriminatory signature verification requirements: Signature matching can be an arduous, largely subjective process that may lead to ballots cast by eligible voters being improperly discarded. In particular, strict signature-matching requirements disproportionately harm voters whose first language is not English, voters with physical disabilities, and voters who are aging or young. Voters whose signatures have been flagged as potentially invalid must be given the opportunity to resolve any problems. In reviewing voter signatures, there should be a presumption of validity; before being rejected, the signature should be reviewed by at least three people, including one person of the opposite political party. All three reviewers should independently conclude that the signature is invalid for the ballot to be rejected.
  • No onerous requirements for absentee ballots: Requiring absentee voters to include signatures of witnesses or notaries public on absentee ballots is excessively burdensome, especially in the midst of public health emergencies. It also introduces unnecessary public health risks by forcing in-person interactions. Such rigid requirements must be suspended in elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Robust voter education: Before Americans use these new voting procedures, they must first be educated about them. Information on new voting procedures and polling place protocols should regularly be posted and updated on official state and local websites, including but not limited to the webpages of secretaries of state or lieutenant governors, state election boards or commissions, and county election offices. Information must be presented in other languages in addition to English and must be accessible for people with disabilities. Information should also be posted on official social media accounts, reported in state and local newspapers, and presented on local TV and radio news Direct outreach should be conducted for registered voters and citizens of voting age, and officials should work with local college campuses to ensure that students receive information. Finally, officials should establish specific helplines that members of the public can call to ask questions and receive information directly from those in charge.

Conclusion

Expanding vote-by-mail opportunities in upcoming elections will help promote voter participation during the COVID-19 pandemic while mitigating public health risks. However, while vote by mail is a convenient option for many Americans, it does not work for everyone. This is why in-person voting options, including early voting, must be preserved in any vote-by-mail system. Additionally, there are a number of affirmative policy solutions that must be adopted in order for this system to be effective, including those that expand voter registration and ensure that all voters have equal access to casting ballots that count.

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing American elections in new and profound ways. That said, by implementing election processes that are safe, inclusive, and accessible, the fundamental right to vote can be preserved and fully realized by all.

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. Danyelle Solomon is the vice president of Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center. Rebecca Cokley is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Tori O’Neal is chief of external affairs at the NAACP. Jamal R. Watkins is the vice president of civic engagement at the NAACP. Dominik Whitehead is the national civic engagement director at the NAACP.

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