States Must Maintain and Expand In-Person Voting Locations During COVID-19

A voter fills out her ballot at the Loudoun County Office of Elections on the first day of early voting in Leesburg, Virginia, on September 18, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic poses a significant challenge for U.S. elections and public health, and elected officials must take steps to preserve Americans’ access to the ballot box. To that end, it is critical that states provide voters with a wide range of safe opportunities to vote, particularly to vote early. While some voters may choose to vote by mail, others may want the option to vote in person—which can be made safer by expanding in-person voting options. Thus, states should avoid curtailing in-person options and must maintain—and in some cases, even expand—these voting locations.

Maintaining in-person options is necessary to prevent the inadvertent disenfranchisement of people of color, Americans with disabilities, and those who rely on same-day voter registration. In-person polling places also provide an important fail-safe for voters who do not receive requested absentee ballots or receive them too late to mail back before the stipulated deadline. For example, Wisconsin never sent at least 9,000 absentee ballots requested by voters, forcing voters to instead show up at polling places and wait in long lines to vote in person. Similarly, Fulton County, Georgia—the state’s largest county—failed to send 2,000 absentee ballots that voters requested. Voters who showed up to the polls on election day waited as long as eight hours, while others were still casting ballots after midnight.

The bottom line is that people will continue to vote in person this fall, possibly in very large numbers. Officials have a responsibility to ensure that there are enough in-person voting options available so that voters can cast ballots safely. Specifically, in order to comply with social distancing mandates and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention polling place guidelines, jurisdictions must, at a minimum, maintain the total number of polling places used during past presidential elections—provided the amount was sufficient and did not contribute to creating long lines. Ideally, however, wherever resources and sufficient numbers of poll workers exist, jurisdictions should seek to increase total polling place numbers to more reliably safeguard against overcrowding, long lines, and unsafe conditions during the pandemic.

Risks associated with eliminating or consolidating polling locations

Unfortunately, some jurisdictions are eliminating or consolidating polling locations, sometimes due to a lack of poll workers:

  • In Kentucky’s statewide primary in June, officials reduced in person polling locations statewide from about 3,700 to about 200.
  • In Wisconsin, Milwaukee officials closed all but five of the city’s 182 in-person voting locations. In Green Bay, only two polling locations were open, compared with the 31 locations typically open on election day.
  • During Pennsylvania’s June primary, 18 polling places in Philadelphia were consolidated into one location.
  • In the weeks leading up to Georgia’s primary election, 80 polling places in the Atlanta metropolitan area were closed. In Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, 16,000 voters were consolidated into a single precinct.

Certainly, the challenges posed by nationwide poll worker shortages cannot be overstated, and states and localities cannot maintain—let alone expand—in-person voting options if there are not enough poll workers to administer the process. But reducing or consolidating polling places forces large groups of voters to gather at a small handful or a single location, which can, in turn, result in long lines and congested polling sites where COVID-19 could potentially spread if proper precautions are not taken. States and elected officials can guard against this outcome and keep voters safe by providing voters with voting options such as curbside voting and drive-up voting.

States have several options to ensure a sufficient number of polling places this fall

Maintaining and expanding in-person voting options are an integral part of preserving every American’s fundamental right to vote while keeping voters, poll workers, and communities safe. There are numerous methods for ensuring voters have a sufficient number of in-person voting options. In addition to maintaining or expanding the number of traditional polling places, jurisdictions can institute curbside and drive-up voting. Curbside voting is a critical resource for voters who are unable to enter an in-person polling place to cast their vote. Typically, curbside voting has been made available to seniors and people living with disabilities. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some states and jurisdictions have offered this option to voters who are concerned about contracting the coronavirus. In Utah and North Carolina, voters who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or are at increased risk of contracting the virus may vote while in a vehicle outside their polling location. Additionally, Utah has made curbside voting available to voters who did not receive their absentee ballots in the mail. Mobile vote centers that travel from neighborhood to neighborhood offer another good option.

The importance of engaging with public health experts and other key stakeholders

Jurisdictions seeking to maintain or expand in-person voting options this fall must coordinate efforts with public health experts, voting advocates, and infectious disease specialists in order to determine which methods work best for their communities. It is also critical that in-person election procedures are implemented in ways that mitigate health risks for voters, election workers, and the public at large. For example, in-person voting locations and equipment must be regularly and properly sanitized throughout voting periods, and election workers must have sufficient personal protective equipment.

Encouraging Americans to serve as poll workers is another effective way to ensure safe elections. In prior reports, the Center for American Progress has outlined recommendations for recruiting and retaining poll workers in preparation for this year’s elections. For instance, jurisdictions can maximize their recruitment efforts by collaborating with businesses, local celebrities, and educational institutions to encourage service and promote volunteerism among members of the public. Additionally, states and localities can provide incentives by offering their employees paid time off and eligible students with automatic excused absences to serve as poll workers during early voting periods and on Election Day.

Conclusion

Expanded access to both vote by mail and in-person voting is vital for ensuring voters can exercise their fundamental right to vote and make their voices heard. It is not enough for jurisdictions to offer just one or even a handful of in-person voting sites this fall. During a pandemic, in order to keep voters and election workers safe, states and localities must maintain in-person voting locations at normal levels or increase them to better provide for social distancing and reduce lines. In doing so, officials can help ensure that every American can fully participate in the democratic process and safely cast their ballots.

Hauwa Ahmed is a research associate for Democracy and Government at the Center for American Progress.

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