States Discuss Smart Solutions for Elections Amid Ongoing Pandemic

April 13, 2020 by Kate Michael
Empty voting booths at Magee school in Round Lake, Ill. Maryland's State Board of Elections is recommending no in-person voting for the June 2 primary due to the new coronavirus pandemic, pushing citizens to mail-in or drop-off ballots. (Jerry Tomaselli/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Coronavirus is testing election systems like never before. Voting has traditionally been a private, yet social affair, with citizens turning out to public polling places to make their voices heard and show the receipt of their civic duty with the coveted ‘I voted’ sticker. But coronavirus is throwing a wrench into business as usual.

The eyes of the nation turned to Wisconsin last week as it held a state primary with in-person voting during the pandemic. In the aftermath of that election, Secretaries of State from California, Colorado, and Michigan discussed good government solutions for holding state elections during COVID-19 at a virtual meeting hosted by the Center for American Progress.

“What happened in Wisconsin should not be a preview for what happens in November, it should be a warning,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who called Wisconsin’s primary a “descent into chaos.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Governor Tony Evers’ effort to suspend in-person voting for the state’s primary election. It also overturned a federal judge’s order that would have allowed mail-in ballots to be sent up to a week late. This forced voters who had not received ballots to brave health risks and vote in-person or not at all. 

With nearly seven months to plan for the November general election, Padilla, along with Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called on states and the federal government to adapt to ensure that the U.S. is being nimble and flexible to meet the needs of voters at this unique time. 

“Wisconsin could have been avoided,” said Padilla, adding that resistance to mail-in voting was “malpractice, in my opinion… The last thing we need is fear and chaos — or discussion of postponement of the election.” No calls have yet been made to consider postponement, and no presidential election has ever been suspended, canceled, or postponed.

“Our elections must go on, and must go on in a way that’s healthy for voters,” said Colorado’s Griswold. “Constitutional rights do not stop during a crisis. Create access and you will create participation… and we have the tools at our disposal. 

“The gold lining is that states across the nation are realizing the need to move forward [to vote by mail].” 

Colorado already offers mail-in ballots to every citizen in the state. The state automates its voter registration, offers same-day registration, and is considering drive-thru centers and mobile voting centers as a result of COVID-19.

California, which had primary voting in its rearview mirror as it participated in Super Tuesday, also has policies in place, like early voting and voting by mail, to maximize access to ballots in elections during the pandemic. In fact, a number of states have already taken steps to assist voters in maintaining social distancing and making voting more convenient. Nevada and Montana allow voting by mail; Indiana is loosening the requirement for absentee ballots, and North Carolina is now allowing online registration.

Michigan, which is preparing for a May 5th local election, passed a ballot measure in 2018 that allows for no-reason absentee voting, and it has joined with other states in proactively making absentee ballots available to every voter in the state. 

“Citizens’ ability to hold elected officials accountable has never been more important,” said Benson, “also that the results of the election will be an accurate reflection of the will of the people.”

Says Griswold: “[Colorado] is confident that November will go off without a hitch and we want the rest of the country to be as confident.” 

To do this, she says, states need to prepare by getting centralized scanners, talking with vendors that provide scanning equipment to be sure supply is available and hiring seasoned personnel to oversee the process. 

Yet some are concerned that allowing mail-in voting could open our elections to fraud. 

“People recognize the importance of maintaining the sanctity of the democratic process,” said Benson.

“The bottom line in all of this is that there [may not be] one best method of voting for every voter in America,” said Padilla, but the pandemic forces us to consider new options. “It’s not about what states are doing now, it’s about what Congress should be doing now. We can’t wait until September or October. All the logistical activity and resources to implement [the November election] need to happen now.”

To ensure this, all of the participating secretaries of state called for a “fifty-state plan,” citing the need for federal involvement to set a national standard.

“The federal government should demand and require that every American should have their voice heard,” said Griswold. “Grocery stores are essential. Factories are essential. Voting is also essential.” 

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