On April 7, Wisconsin proceeded with its primary election despite warnings that doing so in the midst of a public health emergency would endanger voters and election workers. The Republican-controlled Legislature’s refusal to postpone the primary ensured that state and local leaders did not have enough time to prepare by implementing necessary measures for conducting the election safely and efficiently. As a result, Americans were forced to make a terrible choice between shielding themselves against COVID-19 and exercising their fundamental right to vote.
Wisconsin’s experience should be a warning to states across the country: Compared with other states, Wisconsin’s election system was reasonably well-positioned policywise to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem, therefore, was not one of policy but rather preparation and infrastructural challenges. Besides Wisconsin, at least 40 states and the District of Columbia have election systems that, in the absence of further preparation, are not substantially better or worse positioned than Wisconsin to respond to the novel coronavirus.
Only six states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Utah, and Washington—have infrastructure capabilities and critical election policies, such as no-excuse absentee voting, online and same-day registration, and early voting, that leave them well-positioned to respond to COVID-19. Another three states—Arizona, Montana, and Oregon—are also relatively well-situated for conducting elections during the pandemic, as they have most of the necessary policies and infrastructure to support mass reliance on vote by mail.
Fortunately, there are commonsense steps that states can take now to prepare their elections, and there is sufficient time for them to do so. But they must act immediately, as have a number of states; and the federal government needs to provide them with adequate funding to do so. The recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided states with $400 million in emergency election funding, but states will need billions—not millions—to fortify their elections.
Wisconsin offers a warning of what’s to come if states do not prepare
Wisconsin’s election was chaotic. Leading up to the primary, concerns over health risks led roughly 7,000 poll workers statewide to step down from their duties and Wisconsin’s version of in-person early voting to be slashed considerably in places such as Madison and Milwaukee—the state’s two largest cities. Contributing to the chaos were reports of numerous people never receiving absentee ballots despite having requested them. In all, an estimated 9,000 requested ballots were never sent by the state.
Ultimately, Wisconsin’s system proved incapable of safely managing the election, including through its mass reliance on absentee voting. In the 2016 presidential general election, only about 140,000 Wisconsinites cast absentee ballots. In the April primary, more than 1 million were cast, as confusion among voters and those running elections ran rampant. By the time polls closed on April 7, alarming images surfaced of hundreds of mask-clad voters standing in hourslong lines at local polling places waiting to cast ballots, defying a statewide shelter-in-place order in order to make their voices heard.
Wisconsin’s decision to move ahead as planned with the April primary could have serious consequences for Wisconsinites who risked their lives to exercise the fundamental right to vote. Health officials are concerned about the possibility of a spike in COVID-19 cases as a result of the primary and have implemented mechanisms to track new cases linked to election activities.
On paper, Wisconsin boasts a number of policies that should have made it reasonably well-prepared for a public health crisis. For example, Wisconsin provides for no-excuse absentee voting, allowing any voting-eligible person to receive a ballot through the mail and vote from the safety of their own homes. In registering to vote, Wisconsinites have an option to register online and avoid potential postal delays or take advantage of same-day registration by registering and voting at the same time in order to avoid complications arising from traditional deadlines. As noted above, Wisconsin law provides for a form of early voting, which, if implemented correctly, can help prevent long lines during voting periods by dispersing voters across several days. To be sure, Wisconsin’s system is not perfect. In particular, the state’s strict voter ID law makes it considerably difficult for eligible voters—particularly voters of color—to participate in elections and, in turn, limits the effectiveness of some of the aforementioned policies. Still, all four policies—no-excuse absentee voting, online and same-day registration, and extended early voting—are vital for administering elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What transpired in Wisconsin, however, was not the result of bad policy but rather insufficient time to prepare and election infrastructure that was ill-equipped to contend with a pandemic. Although sound policies such as those described above are vital for administering elections during the COVID-19 crisis, their overall utility is only fully realized if the existing infrastructure can support them.
In fact, Wisconsin’s primary shows how even in states doing many things right, election processes can break down easily in the midst of a pandemic. It also serves as a warning to those underestimating the threat that COVID-19 poses to American elections. Unless lawmakers at state and federal levels take immediate action to fortify election systems, the turmoil and potentially deadly consequences observed in Wisconsin will likely repeat themselves in states across the country.
For some states, bolstering infrastructure will be a top priority
Based on research by the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Conference of State Legislatures, besides Wisconsin, just 16 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted, with wide variability, some form of no-excuse absentee voting, online and same-day registration, and early voting. These states are California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.
Regarding infrastructure capabilities, seven of those places—the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Carolina—are similarly situated to Wisconsin in that vote by mail has historically been underutilized. In these states and the District of Columbia, absentee ballots accounted for less than 10 percent of votes cast in the 2016 general election, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and state databases. In Wisconsin, only about 5 percent of voters cast mailed absentee ballots that year. If Wisconsin is any indication, these other states’ and the District of Columbia’s infrastructure may be unable to reliably manage huge surges in vote by mail unless improvements are made immediately.
Voters in four states—Idaho, Michigan, Vermont, and North Dakota—have had comparatively higher reliance on vote by mail than Wisconsin, with mailed ballots comprising between 14 and 30 percent of votes in 2016. Still, they too will need to ramp up infrastructure capabilities to prepare for majority reliance on mail-based voting during upcoming elections.
Of the 17 places with requisite policies—including the District of Columbia—only six are significantly better prepared than Wisconsin to handle mass reliance on vote by mail in this year’s elections: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Utah, and Washington.
In these places, mailed ballots made up at least 40 percent of votes cast during the 2016 general election. Four of those states—Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, and Washington—conduct all-mail elections. Unlike Wisconsin, these states have both the policies and the infrastructure to successfully carry out elections during the COVID-19 outbreak. This is not to say problems will not arise; the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging elections in profound and unpredictable ways. However, armed with the right policies and vote-by-mail infrastructure, these states have tools to overcome many foreseeable challenges.
For states where vote by mail has not been widely relied on, preparing electoral processes for COVID-19 will largely center on expanding infrastructure capacity, not policy reform. Fortunately, a number of them already have plans to prepare their elections for huge influxes in vote by mail. According to state filings for distribution of 2020 CARES Act grants, Illinois plans to purchase additional tabulating equipment “to handle an expected increase in Vote by Mail balloting” and will increase staffing for sending and receiving ballots. Michigan is spending $2 million on “absentee voting counting board tabulators” in preparation for surges in vote by mail. For its part, Washington, D.C., aims to purchase hardware and software for mail sorting equipment and make technical upgrades to its Board of Elections website so as to streamline the absentee ballot application and tracking process. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Maryland intend to print more absentee ballots and envelopes to meet increased demand.
By taking proactive steps to fortify and build on existing infrastructure now, these states will be better prepared to conduct elections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and can therefore avoid many of the complications witnessed in Wisconsin.
Other states must focus on both policy and infrastructure upgrades
In states lacking necessary infrastructure and strong policies that protect electoral processes and keep people safe, preparing elections for COVID-19—while still wholly feasible—presents more of a challenge. Unless officials in these states act immediately, Wisconsin’s primary debacle will pale in comparison to what transpires within their borders.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 33 states lack at least one of the four vital policies identified in previous sections: no-excuse absentee voting, online and same-day registration, and early voting. Eighteen of these states lack two or more policies:. Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
Besides lacking key policies, many of these states could face serious challenges in administering mostly vote-by-mail elections given their historical underreliance on mail-based voting. For instance, in 20 of the 33 states lacking one or more critical policies, absentee ballots comprised less than 10 percent of all votes cast in 2016, according to data collected by the EAC. These states are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
In the absence of considerable policy reform and system upgrades, American citizens in these places may be blocked from casting ballots. Additionally, increased demand for vote by mail due to COVID-19 concerns could overwhelm existing infrastructure, leading to lost votes and administrative headaches.
Among the 33 states listed above, only in Arizona, Montana, and Oregon—which lack just same-day voter registration—did mailed ballots comprise more than 50 percent of votes cast in the 2016 general election. Oregon conducts its elections entirely by mail.
Fortunately, many of these states have already taken action to improve their systems. For example, several states lacking no-excuse absentee voting—including Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York—have expanded access to vote by mail by eliminating or loosening “excuse” requirements in upcoming elections. Other states, such as Georgia, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and South Dakota, are proactively sending absentee ballot application forms to all registered or active voters. West Virginia is also automatically mailing absentee applications to all registered voters, and Secretary of State Mac Warner has declared that COVID-19 constitutes a valid excuse for requesting a ballot under state law. In expanding access to vote by mail, the aforementioned states are helping to preserve the fundamental right to vote while also mitigating community spread.
In other states, officials are bolstering election infrastructure to manage surges in vote by mail. According to 2020 CARES Act state grant filings, Louisiana and Kentucky intend to acquire additional ballot printers and/or scanners for counting ballots. Arkansas and Mississippi are preparing for increased costs associated with printing and/or processing more absentee ballots, while Pennsylvania plans to engage in a mass education effort to inform voters how to vote by absentee or mail-in ballot. And New Jersey expects to “purchase more tabulation equipment as well as hire additional staff to process the increased number of returned vote-by-mail ballots.” By buttressing their election infrastructure, states will be better equipped for unprecedented reliance on vote by mail in upcoming elections.
Still, many states have a significant way to go in preparing themselves for running a safe election that ensures that every eligible voter has a chance to cast a ballot.
In preparing elections for the COVID-19 pandemic, time is of the essence
It will take substantial time to implement all essential measures for safely and efficiently carrying out elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is true regardless of whether a state needs to bolster its infrastructure or if it needs to both modify infrastructure and adopt new voting policies.
In nearly every state, in-person voting remains the most popular method for casting a ballot. Yet during a pandemic, reliance must shift toward vote by mail in order to promote social distancing and prevent community spread. To be sure, preserving in-person voting options is absolutely imperative for conserving the fundamental right to vote. Nonetheless, vote by mail will become the default option for the vast majority of American voters this year. Making this shift from in-person to mostly mail-based voting will require huge overhauls of most state election systems.
As noted in previous sections, numerous states have already made or plan to make important changes to prepare for the coming elections. But much more can and must be done, particularly in planning for the general election, which is just months away. For instance, while it is good that many states are expanding access to mail-based voting, vote by mail alone is insufficient for fortifying elections against the COVID-19 pandemic. States that do not have key policies such as online voter registration, same-day registration, and/or early voting must adopt them as soon as possible to keep people safe and prevent inadvertent disenfranchisement of American citizens who are facing unique challenges because of COVID-19.
States that already have these policies must expand them to be fully effective. Overly burdensome requirements for obtaining no-excuse absentee ballots, such as requiring proof of ID, should be suspended during the pandemic. Early voting must take place over the course of at least 14 days and on weekends, and same-day voter registration must be permitted throughout early voting as well as on Election Day itself. Additionally, deadlines pertaining to online voter registration should also be extended as near to Election Day as possible. Finally, states that have been slow to shore up their infrastructure for mass reliance on mailed ballots must start the process immediately to avoid problems down the line.
The four policies examined throughout this report—no-excuse absentee, online and same-day registration, and early voting—are baseline requirements that all states should have during a public health emergency. That said, numerous additional programs must be adopted to ensure that elections are carried out safely this year, including but not limited to establishing sanitation and social distancing protocols at polling places; counting absentee ballots postmarked on Election Day; implementing ballot tracing programs and nondiscriminatory signature verification standards; and engaging in mass voter education campaigns.
America can ready itself for November if—and only if—it takes aggressive steps now to prepare. Unfortunately, state election budgets are severely underfunded and cannot be reasonably expected to bankroll the extensive upgrades needed to safeguard the democratic process and public health. Although states and localities undertake much of the responsibility for shielding elections against COVID-19, Congress has an even bigger role to play through its appropriations power.
States cannot afford to wait until September or October to receive additional federal funding. By then, it will be too late to implement meaningful changes. As a result, millions of Americans of all political persuasions, such as those in Wisconsin, will be forced to risk their lives to vote. To prevent this from happening, Congress must allocate $4 billion to states now so that they can immediately get to work and bolster their election systems against the pandemic.
Danielle Root is the associate director of voting rights and access to justice on the Democracy and Government Reform team at the Center for American Progress.
Take action: We need safe and accessible voting through the coronavirus crisis.
To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.