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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
voter line
Jeff Kowalsky/Getty

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.