Elections in a Pandemic: The Crisis Response Should Be Permanent Policy

Elections in a Pandemic: The Crisis Response Should Be Permanent Policy

The best way to keep people safe during this election season is also the best way to maximize participation: give people the widest possible range of opportunities to register and to vote.

Voters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 7 (Sara Stathas for the Washington Post/Getty Images)
Read more of our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here.

Wisconsin’s elections earlier this month were a stark lesson on how not to organize voting in a crisis. Courageous voters came out, defying and defeating the crude efforts at voter suppression. But the administrative confusion, conflicting judicial decisions, and changing messages to voters all contributed to an election nightmare. This mess should never be allowed to happen again, during this crisis or in the future.

As governors, election officials, and legislatures scramble to make plans for this November, the steps they need to take to run elections safely in a pandemic should also be a roadmap, and major accelerant, to reforms that are moving us, slowly and unevenly, in the direction of increased participation. The best way to keep people safe during this election season is also the best way to maximize participation: give people the widest possible range of opportunities to register and to vote.

The most-discussed reform is allowing people to vote by a mail ballot. Seven states—Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, North Dakota, and California—send ballots to all, or most, voters already. Other states are moving in this direction. However, sixteen states still require voters to have an excuse for not voting in person. A pandemic is a pretty good excuse, but this crisis should move every state toward having a full set of mail voting options for every voter, for every election. There will be challenges in dramatically expanding voting by mail, but new technologies and the experience of states who are already doing it provide the path forward.

But expanded mail voting is not enough. Early voting should be made part of every election, permanently. Early voting allows voters to manage their participation and significantly reduces crowds and lines on Election Day. Forty states and Washington, D.C., now offer the option of early voting. But there are widely diverging practices, both in the length of the early voting period (from five to forty-five days) and in options for returning the ballot. In Virginia, Governor Northam just signed a bill creating a forty-five-day early voting period. Every state should move to at least twenty days of early voting for all elections, with multiple convenient locations where people can cast their ballots in person.

Just as the coronavirus disrupts voting, it also interferes with citizens’ ability to register. Advance registration deadlines, especially coupled with mandates to close offices and the inability of officials and organizations to register people at large gatherings or door-to-door, ensure that many people will lose their franchise. Progress has been made in expanding registration opportunities, but unevenly. Nineteen states and the District offer full same-day registration, and twenty-six states allow young people to pre-register before they turn eighteen. Thirty-nine states and D.C. offer online registration, and a rapidly growing number (almost twenty) are automatically registering people during their interactions with Departments of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies. All these options should be available to every citizen in every state to invite the fullest participation.

Stringent voter ID laws cut in the opposite direction. In the same way that the virus makes it more difficult to register, it is making it even more difficult for many people to obtain the forms of ID that some states require. These requirements should immediately be relaxed for this emergency. But they have already proven themselves to be a solution to a problem that really doesn’t exist—fraudulent in-person voting. These laws should be repealed permanently. A set of effective but minimally difficult security procedures can be put in place for expanded registration and mail-in voting options.

A real commitment to fully funding our democracy is critical as well. States, counties, and municipalities are now scrambling for funds to make the changes they will need to conduct November’s election, and the money provided in the stimulus packages so far is woefully inadequate. Robust funding must be provided by the federal government as well as by all state governments. The list of needs is long, including assembling a larger, more diverse, and far better paid cadre of poll workers. Substantial funding will also be needed for major public education efforts to ensure that voters know what to do, while warding off the torrents of misinformation they will receive.

In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic encountered a public health system that was not ready for it, but which could have been. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is an agency with the technical expertise, professionalism and authority to guide the nation through the crisis, were it fully supported and allowed to do its job.

Our election system has no analog to the CDC. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) as a small and weak federal office which was very carefully structured and titled to avoid any implication of real authority. It can and does help in various ways, but the EAC does not have the ability to ensure that our election processes function well in this crisis, or bring about the increased participation we need in the future. It needs a new and expanded charter, powers, and funding, and our democracy needs that kind of expertise and authority—and a deep commitment to full participation.


Miles Rapoport is the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School. He previously served as Secretary of the State of Connecticut and as President of Demos.

Cecily Hines is Senior Policy Advisor to the Senior Practice Fellowship. She previously served as general counsel to several global medical device companies and as President of Minneapolis Parks Foundation.


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