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Six Ways for Election Officials to Prepare for High Voter Turnout in 2020

From early voting to streamlined registration, there are clear steps that will help shorten lines on Election Day.

November 12, 2019

We are now less than one year away from Election Day 2020, and Americans are projected to turn out at levels not reached since the early 20th century.

Voter turnout has been steadily on the rise since the 2014 election. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, voter turnout in 2018 increased among all major racial, ethnic, and voting age groups. The turnout rate in 2018 — 53 percent — was the highest in over four decades. Just this month, voter turnout in Kentucky outpaced turnout in the state’s 2015 gubernatorial election at a considerable rate, even surpassing forecasts made by the Kentucky secretary of state’s office days before the election.

Experts may disagree about the exact level of expected turnout in 2020, but some estimates suggest as many as two-thirds of all eligible voters may cast a ballot, which would be the highest presidential turnout rate in more than one hundred years.   

While it is exciting to imagine so many citizens engaging with democracy, considerable voter turnout could mean considerable stress on our election systems, especially if those systems aren’t ready. When turnout rose in 2018, reports documented voter waits of more than an hour on Election Day everywhere from rural Pennsylvania to New York City, as well as in Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.

Long lines are the most visible manifestation of the problems with our voting system, and unfortunately, those issues go deeper. On Election Day in 2018, the Election Protection Coalition, which runs the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection hotline, received more than 31,000 calls and 1,700 text messages from voters across the country struggling to cast their ballots. This was unprecedented.

With careful and proactive planning — starting today — our election systems can be prepared to handle an uncommonly busy Election Day. Here are six key steps election officials should be taking now to prepare for the historic election to come.  

1. Adopt an early voting period

Spreading out the days when people can vote eases Election Day congestion. Despite this benefit and widespread public support, 13 states still do not provide voters with any opportunity to vote early, and lawmakers in some states have even sought to cut back on early voting. Early voting also allows election officials to correct registration errors and fix voting system glitches sooner.

The 13 states that currently lack an early voting period should pass legislation to adopt it, and states that already have early voting systems should work to strengthen and standardize them. An ideal system would allow for early in-person voting beginning at least two weeks before Election Day and would provide opportunities to vote in the evening and on weekends. States should provide public education to ensure citizens know when and where they can vote early.

2. Modernize voter registration systems

Antiquated voter registration systems create barriers to access the ballot, resulting in millions of people with inaccurate registration records or being left off the voter rolls entirely. They also lead to financial waste. Every year, far too many eligible Americans show up at the polls only to find that they cannot vote because their names are missing from the registration rolls. Nearly one quarter of all eligible voters are not registered to vote, and about one in eight registration records has serious errors or is invalid.

We need to modernize voter registration systems across the country. A truly modern voter registration system has four components. First, states should adopt automatic voter registration, so that citizens are automatically added to the voter rolls when they interact with government agencies, unless they opt out. Second, voters should be able to register online. Third, voter registration should be portable: once citizens are signed up to vote, they should remain registered when they move within their states. Finally, there should be an Election Day safety net that gives people the opportunity to register or update their information at the polls.

3. Invest in electoral resources

A lack of poll workers, low numbers of voting machines, and insufficient polling places are major contributors to long lines on Election Day. Interestingly, many states set minimum standards for these types electoral resources.

Increasing investments in poll worker recruitment and training would also go a long way toward reducing problems on Election Day. Voters regularly encounter poll workers who misunderstand voting laws or struggle to use the voting equipment on hand. Poll workers are often undertrained and overworked, and it can be challenging to find qualified poll workers, especially given how little most states pay. It’s also essential to provide support for voters who speak languages other than English. Without good poll workers, nothing in the system can function properly, which is why recruitment and training efforts must be improved ahead of the upcoming election.

4. Develop election security contingency protocols

The 2016 elections revealed that election systems across America are under serious threat. A bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report concluded that election infrastructure in all 50 states was likely targeted by Russian operatives, and the intelligence community expects such attacks to continue in the future. But steps can be taken to avoid delays caused by disruptions.

The Brennan Center has researched potential vulnerabilities and developed solutions to ensure that officials have contingency plans in place for any disruptions in the election process. These recommendations include subjecting voter registration systems to independent vulnerability testing and implementing robust post-election audits.

5. Create an Election Day emergency preparedness plan

Technological glitches can lead to long lines and lost votes on Election Day. In 2018, over 40 states used voting equipment that was at least 10 years old, increasing the risk of crashes and other problems. Thankfully, the Brennan Center created a checklist of steps election officials can take to improve election administration across the board, such as replacing old voting machines, fixing ballot design defects, conducting thorough audits of paper ballots, and performing regular risk assessments.

Election administrators can also consult the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s comprehensive report for additional recommendations and helpful guidance. Election officials should put these resources to good use and create Election Day emergency preparedness plans, in order to stop failures before they happen, prepare poll workers for potential problems, and ensure all votes can be fairly counted.

6. Prevent improper purges of voter rolls

Voter purges are an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists. While updating registration lists is necessary and important, when done irresponsibly — with bad data or through a faulty process — purges can knock eligible voters off the roll in large swaths, often with little notice. A recent Brennan Center report found that between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls. Many voters don’t discover they have been purged from registration rolls until they arrive at their polling place on Election Day. The resulting voter confusion can cause delays at voting sites, slowing down the check-in process and forcing voters to cast time-consuming provisional ballots — if they vote at all.

States that are planning to undertake voter list maintenance ahead of the 2020 election should protect against disenfranchisement caused by improper purges by using accurate, reliable voter information and providing public and individual notice before removing names from the rolls.

An election to remember — for good reasons

With widespread voter enthusiasm and the potential for extraordinary voter turnout, 2020 is shaping up be a defining moment for our democracy. But the consequences of that moment will be shaped by decisions made by election officials today. The people are ready to share their voice. Now is the time to put in place policies and procedures to make sure that their government is ready to hear it.