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Policy Solution

How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus

Summary: The Brennan Center’s plan to ensure that the 2020 election is free, fair, accessible, and secure

Published: March 16, 2020

This is part of the Bren­nan Center’s response to the coronavirus.

This docu­ment benefited from the input of multiple elec­tion offi­cials and voting rights experts and may be updated to account for new devel­op­ments and comments.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) presents a diffi­cult and novel chal­lenge to the admin­is­tra­tion of the 2020 general elec­tion. Recent elec­tion emer­gen­cies have largely been caused by cata­strophic weather events, and our coun­try has done little elec­tion plan­ning for pandem­ics. Unlike a hurricane, a pandemic does not have a discrete and relat­ively predict­able end point. And avoid­ing large-scale social contact is a cent­ral feature of combat­ing the crisis. These elements create distinct chal­lenges for elec­tion offi­cials on top of the signi­fic­ant and ongo­ing threats to the secur­ity of our elec­tion infra­struc­ture.

Given the scope of the chal­lenge, large-scale prepar­a­tion, backed by the concer­ted support of the govern­ment and the public, is needed imme­di­ately to ensure that the 2020 elec­tion is free, fair, access­ible, and secure. We will need substan­tial modi­fic­a­tions to our elec­tion proced­ures, substan­tial flex­ib­il­ity, and a substan­tial infu­sion of resources to ensure that every eligible Amer­ican can register and vote safely, securely, access­ibly, and as conveni­ently as possible; to ensure that every ballot cast by an eligible voter counts; to main­tain the secur­ity of the elec­tion; and to ensure the safety of elec­tion work­ers. Below we outline the crit­ical changes needed to ensure the elec­tion works.

The key recom­mend­a­tions fall into five categor­ies: (1) polling place modi­fic­a­tion and prepar­a­tion; (2) expan­ded early voting; (3) a univer­sal vote-by-mail option; (4) voter regis­tra­tion modi­fic­a­tion and prepar­a­tion, includ­ing expan­ded online regis­tra­tion; and (5) voter educa­tion and manip­u­la­tion preven­tion. We recom­mend that each state govern­ment estab­lish an elec­tion pandemic task force to determ­ine how best to imple­ment relev­ant policy recom­mend­a­tions in their state. State and local offi­cials must under­stand the laws and emer­gency rules applic­able to their juris­dic­tions and consider appro­pri­ate adjust­ments to ensure that elec­tion offi­cials have the author­ity needed to accom­plish these modi­fic­a­tions. For its part, Congress should imme­di­ately appro­pri­ate funds to ensure that elec­tion offi­cials have the resources needed to make the needed adjust­ments to their voting systems. Congress should also estab­lish baseline national rules to ensure that every eligible Amer­ican can vote safely, securely, and access­ibly in the midst of the pandemic. In the absence of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, care must be taken to ensure that changes are nondis­crim­in­at­ory and do not negat­ively impact access for communit­ies of color.

1. Polling Places

People without Inter­net and mail access, those who need language assist­ance to vote, and people with disab­il­it­ies who rely on voting machines to cast a private and inde­pend­ent ballot may be disen­fran­chised if polling places are closed. To ensure that every­one can vote, juris­dic­tions should do their best to keep polling places open and safe for voters and elec­tion work­ers alike, and they should take steps to guard against long lines and mass confu­sion.

Polling place siting

  • To the extent permiss­ible under public health mandates, juris­dic­tions that offer polling place voting must continue to do so. Many people do not wish to, do not know how to, do not have access to, or cannot use mail voting.
    • In partic­u­lar, Native Amer­ican tribes should be permit­ted to desig­nate build­ings on reser­va­tions that can be used to register to vote and pick up and submit ballots (as would be provided by the Native Amer­ican Voting Rights Act).
    • Polling sites are also crit­ical for the oper­a­tion of same-day regis­tra­tion, real-time address updates, and provi­sional ballot­ing for certain indi­vidu­als.
  • Prepar­a­tions should be made now to modify polling place siting decisions to account for Covid-19.
    • Polling places are routinely sited in build­ings that primar­ily serve communit­ies iden­ti­fied as high risk for seri­ous Covid-19 illness, like senior care facil­it­ies. Altern­at­ive loca­tions should be imme­di­ately iden­ti­fied in case the health risk is too great to use those loca­tions in Novem­ber and, in the event of a change, voters should imme­di­ately be given indi­vidu­al­ized notice of the change, with a second notice to be given within weeks of the Novem­ber elec­tion. Fund­ing should be provided to account for increased rental costs and costs asso­ci­ated with making new polling sites access­ible to people with disab­il­it­ies.
    • If polling places are moved out of senior care facil­it­ies or other resid­en­tial sites, plans should be imple­men­ted to ensure that the resid­ents of those facil­it­ies are able to cast a ballot.
    • In determ­in­ing modi­fic­a­tions to polling loca­tion plans, elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials must assess the impact of voting changes on vulner­able communit­ies and ensure that polling place loca­tion changes increase, not limit, access­ib­il­ity for racial and language minor­ity voters as well as students and voters with disab­il­it­ies.
  • Where there is insuf­fi­cient access to polling places, states should add vote centers where every ballot in a juris­dic­tion is avail­able on demand. This will require imme­di­ate fund­ing to set up the neces­sary tech­no­logy.

Healthy polling places

  • Polling places will need to be sanit­ized to prevent trans­mis­sion of the virus, in compli­ance with the guid­ance issued by govern­ment health agen­cies.
    • The Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion (CDC) has issued guid­ance for prevent­ing trans­mis­sion of Covid-19 at polling places, includ­ing that poll work­ers should stay home if they are sick, clean frequently touched surfaces, disin­fect poten­tially contam­in­ated surfaces after clean­ing, wash hands frequently, and clean and disin­fect voting machines and other equip­ment.
      • The U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC) has posted guid­ance from vendors regard­ing the clean­ing of voting machines.
    • Polling places should be equipped with soap, water, and drying mater­i­als and an alco­hol-based hand sanit­izer.
    • Proced­ures should be estab­lished to ensure that hand sanit­izer use does not jam ballot scan­ners.
    • Ballot-mark­ing proced­ures should be estab­lished to minim­ize viral trans­mis­sion. For instance, where possible, voters should be provided with dispos­able pens to mark paper ballots and should also be encour­aged to bring their own pens to the polling place. Elec­tion offi­cials should consult with their machine vendors to determ­ine whether Q-tips or other dispos­able devices can be used to mark votes, instead of voters using their fingers.
  • To comply with govern­ment health organ­iz­a­tions’ recom­men­ded social distan­cing policies, polling places will require recon­fig­ur­a­tion to allow substan­tial space between voting privacy booths, distance between poll work­ers, etc.
    • Increased fund­ing and prepar­a­tion will be needed for resources such as addi­tional machines, addi­tional staff, and larger voting spaces.
    • Recon­fig­ur­a­tion plans should account for voters with disab­il­it­ies to ensure these voters do not face extra burdens by the place­ment of voting equip­ment and check-in stations.
  • Adequate polling place resources, includ­ing voting machines, ballots, and poll work­ers, should be provided to minim­ize lines, since crowds and expos­ure time are key determ­in­ants of the like­li­hood of contract­ing viruses, and since long lines are in part a func­tion of inad­equate elec­tion day resources. (This is partic­u­larly crit­ical since the CDC recently recom­men­ded canceling gath­er­ings of 50 people or more for eight weeks.)
    • Increased fund­ing for and deploy­ment of polling place resources is needed to minim­ize lines.
    • Resource plans should include recruit­ment of addi­tional poll work­ers to account for poten­tial absences due to sick­ness or fear of Covid-19.
      • Plans may include recruit­ing work­ers who were displaced or laid off due to the effects of Covid-19 and nones­sen­tial federal, state and local work­ers (who do not have a conflict of interest), expand­ing student and bilin­gual poll worker programs, using tempor­ary staff­ing agen­cies, and relax­ing poll worker qual­i­fic­a­tions.
      • Fund­ing should be provided to increase incent­ive compens­a­tion for poll work­ers and to pay over­time to poll work­ers work­ing to process lines that remain after poll clos­ing hours.
      • Juris­dic­tions should also consider recruit­ing addi­tional poll work­ers who can serve as “greeters” to triage differ­ent types of voters — for example, identi­fy­ing voters who are there to drop off a ballot as opposed to cast­ing a ballot on a machine, or those who need language assist­ance.
    • Resource plans should also account for online or webinar-based train­ings of poll work­ers.
    • Juris­dic­tions that are required to provide language assist­ance in languages other than English should hire profes­sional inter­pret­ers to offer assist­ance by phone at any stage of the voting process where trans­la­tion is needed.
    • Curb­side voting options should be made avail­able, espe­cially for voters with disab­il­it­ies or illnesses who may not be able to leave their vehicles. (Note that as a general matter, curb­side voting is not a legal cure to inac­cess­ible polling loca­tions.)
  • Juris­dic­tions should prepare for a surge in provi­sional voting due to delays in processing of voter regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions, voter confu­sion result­ing from polling site clos­ures and consol­id­a­tion, and unfa­mili­ar­ity with absentee voting.
    • Poll work­ers must receive addi­tional train­ing on provi­sional voting proced­ures, includ­ing train­ing to ensure that every person who presents them­selves as eligible to vote has a right to cast a provi­sional ballot.
    • Elec­tion offi­cials should stock extra provi­sional envel­opes, provi­sional voter affi­davits, and provi­sional voter notices of rights in all languages the juris­dic­tion is required to offer under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
    • To account for anti­cip­ated concerns about the safety of certain polling places in states that have strict precinct voting require­ments, provi­sional ballots cast by voters registered in the juris­dic­tion, but cast in the wrong precinct, should count for the races on which the voter is eligible to vote, and states should suspend restric­tions that would prevent voters’ ballots from count­ing.

2. Early In-Person Voting

  • States should expand early voting options to reduce long lines and admin­is­trat­ive stress on Elec­tion Day.
    • States that do not offer early in-person voting should imple­ment it for this year — either by creat­ing an early voting program or by modi­fy­ing their exist­ing absentee voting program to allow voters to cast absentee ballots in person.
    • States that offer early in-person voting should expand the number of loca­tions at which it is offered and extend the days and hours on which it is offered.
    • Ideally, states should offer at least two weeks of early in-person voting, but states should offer a minimum of five days, includ­ing at least one Saturday and one Sunday.
    • Voters should be encour­aged to vote in advance of Elec­tion Day to minim­ize crowding of polling places.
  • A signi­fic­ant infu­sion of resources is needed to expand flex­ible early voting, allow for ballots on demand in states that choose to offer early voting at vote centers, and imple­ment tech­no­lo­gies, like online wait time apps, that can help direct voters to loca­tions with the shortest lines.

3. Mail Voting

Mail voting option for all, at no cost

  • Mail-in ballot options should be exten­ded to all voters.
    • All voters should be offered the option to cast their ballot by mail (with multiple submis­sion options, as provided below), so as to enable voters to avoid lines at the polls and expos­ure to Covid-19.
      • However, in-person voting options consist­ent with public health must also be main­tained.
    • Inact­ive and recently purged voters (who may have been improp­erly removed from the rolls) should be sent provi­sional ballots by mail if they request a mail ballot.
    • In the few states that have appro­pri­ate voter list and elec­tion infra­struc­ture and wide­spread mail voting, it may be appro­pri­ate for elec­tion author­it­ies to arrange to auto­mat­ic­ally send mail ballots to every registered voter, while main­tain­ing in-person options for those who cannot vote by mail.
    • Given that mail-in voting may be the only option for people who need assist­ance or are immune-comprom­ised to cast a ballot, states must allow voters who cannot vote in person — partic­u­larly people with disab­il­it­ies, illness, or language assist­ance needs — to obtain assist­ance complet­ing and submit­ting ballots from indi­vidu­als they desig­nate.
    • An imme­di­ate infu­sion of resources is needed for mail ballot track­ing soft­ware, as well as for addi­tional facil­it­ies costs for mail ballot processing and ballot duplic­a­tion efforts.
  • Voters should not bear the return post­age cost for absentee ballots.
    • In addi­tion, absentee ballots without post­age should be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.
  • Juris­dic­tions should order adequate paper ballots and absentee ballot envel­opes to account for the poten­tial need to mail ballots to every registered voter.
    • At a minimum, enough paper ballots and absentee ballot envel­opes should be prin­ted to cover 120 percent of the number of registered voters in the juris­dic­tion at the time the ballots and envel­opes are ordered. This will account for the anti­cip­ated surge in voter regis­tra­tions before the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion and should accom­mod­ate spikes in turnout for voters chan­ging their minds and decid­ing to vote in person during early voting peri­ods or at a polling place on Elec­tion Day.
      • Juris­dic­tions that are required to provide language assist­ance under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act must provide ballots and other voting mater­i­als, includ­ing updates about the changes to elec­tion proced­ures, in all required languages. These juris­dic­tions should also offer language assist­ance by phone.
    • Covid-19 could unex­pec­tedly impact print­ing vendor capa­city, and offi­cials should order ballots as soon as possible.
      • Voting system vendors should ensure there are enough commer­cial print­ers that know the vendor ballot specific­a­tions to meet addi­tional demand and that elec­tion offi­cials have the specific­a­tions so they too can print ballots as needed.
      • Where possible, states should use no-glue envel­opes and instruct voters not to lick envel­opes.

Request­ing, receiv­ing, and return­ing mail ballots

Options for request­ing, receiv­ing, and return­ing mail-in ballots should be expan­ded, while main­tain­ing the secur­ity of the voting system.

  • States should offer multiple meth­ods of request­ing mail-in ballots, includ­ing online, in person, by phone, and by mail.
    • States gener­ally allow voters to request mail-in ballots in person or through the mail, but a number of states supple­ment these request meth­ods. At least one supple­mental method should be offered to voters in affected juris­dic­tions.
    • Juris­dic­tions should consider estab­lish­ing secure processes by which voters who are unable to leave their homes can be offered an option to receive a blank ballot elec­tron­ic­ally.
      • In states that have tabu­lat­ors that work only with certain ballots, email prin­ted ballots should be an option of last resort (and will have to be coun­ted by hand or duplic­ated before scan­ning).
      • Fund­ing should be provided for this purpose, includ­ing for the duplic­a­tion of ballots and the imple­ment­a­tion of secure elec­tronic tech­no­logy for trans­mit­tal of blank ballots.
      • Web portals for online absentee ballot requests should be screen-reader compat­ible for voters with visual impair­ments.
  • Secure options for return­ing ballots should be expan­ded.
    • States should offer voters drop boxes in access­ible loca­tions, if they are able to do so securely. Outside of govern­ment offices, drop boxes should be equipped with secure cameras.
    • Voters should also be offered secure curb­side drop-off options at polling places.
    • States should allow voters who are unable to leave their homes to desig­nate indi­vidu­als to return their completed ballots.
  • Dead­lines for mail-in ballots to be reques­ted and returned should be relaxed.
    • Voters in juris­dic­tions affected by Covid-19 should be permit­ted to request a mail-in ballot as close as possible to Elec­tion Day.
    • Mail-in ballot receipt dead­lines should be exten­ded to account for delays in U.S. Mail, ballot drop box retrieval, or other admin­is­trat­ive processing delays caused by Covid-19. The receipt dead­lines must not be exten­ded so far as to prevent compli­ance with the federal Elect­oral College dead­lines, though Congress should extend those dead­lines.

Processing and count­ing mail ballots

  • Elec­tion canvassing and certi­fic­a­tion dead­lines should be exten­ded to account for delays in receiv­ing and processing mail-in ballots, and ballot processing times should be adjus­ted.
    • Elec­tion canvassing and certi­fic­a­tion dead­lines should be exten­ded to account for broader use of vote by mail, exten­ded mail-in ballot dead­lines, and disrup­tions to U.S. Mail service, while remain­ing consist­ent with (also exten­ded) federal Elect­oral College dead­lines.
    • In addi­tion, while the CDC has stated, with respect to pack­ages from China, that “there is likely very low risk of spread from products or pack­aging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambi­ent temper­at­ures,” it is conceiv­able that elec­tion offi­cials will decide to quar­ant­ine mail-in ballots prior to canvassing them. Dead­lines should be exten­ded further to account for that.
    • Elec­tion offi­cials should be permit­ted to begin processing mail-in ballots prior to the close of polls on Elec­tion Day, in order to save time and reduce the over­all admin­is­trat­ive burden.
    • While it would be completely inap­pro­pri­ate to move Elec­tion Day either nation­ally or in a partic­u­lar state, the dead­lines for count­ing ballots and resolv­ing elec­tion disputes can and should be exten­ded to ensure a fair and accur­ate count before the end of the year. Specific­ally, Congress should extend the Elect­oral College dead­lines, merging or moving closer together the Decem­ber 8, 2020 “safe harbor” dead­line for states to resolve contro­ver­sies over the appoint­ment of elect­ors and the Decem­ber 14 meet­ing of the elect­ors, and extend­ing these dead­lines to occur closer to the end of the calen­dar year.
  • Reas­on­able, uniform processes for eval­u­at­ing the valid­ity of mail ballots should be imple­men­ted to prevent wide­spread disen­fran­chise­ment as a result of an uptick in mail ballots.
    • Uniform processes for signa­ture match­ing should be imple­men­ted and fund­ing for signa­ture match­ing soft­ware should be provided. Because signa­ture match­ing can lead to voter disen­fran­chise­ment, espe­cially for voters with disab­il­it­ies and illnesses, voters whose signa­tures are found not to match should be offered timely notice and a mean­ing­ful oppor­tun­ity to cure or prove that they person­ally cast the ballot.
    • Ballots should not be rejec­ted based on tech­nical defects that do not substan­tially relate to ensur­ing that the ballot was actu­ally completed and cast by the voter.
    • Mail ballot require­ments that neces­sit­ate in-person inter­ac­tion — such as getting an absentee ballot notar­ized or witnessed, or curing defects with an absentee at a govern­ment office — should be modi­fied.
  • Mail ballot processing and admin­is­trat­ive capa­city should be expan­ded.
    • An imme­di­ate infu­sion of fund­ing is needed to expand capa­city to process a surge in the number of mail ballots, includ­ing purchas­ing high-speed ballot scan­ners and auto­mated mail sort­ing systems, secur­ing addi­tional ware­house space to store the addi­tional equip­ment and supplies needed for mail ballot­ing, and increas­ing elec­tion staff to process mail ballots and ballot applic­a­tions.
    • In juris­dic­tions that are required to provide language assist­ance pursu­ant to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, language assist­ance hotlines should be set up to provide general inform­a­tion and answer ques­tions in mandated languages.

4. Voter Registration

Covid-19 may severely disrupt the abil­ity of Amer­ic­ans to register to vote and elec­tions offi­cials to process regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions. Quar­ant­ines, illnesses, and social distan­cing will likely reduce access to govern­ment offices that provide voter regis­tra­tion services or lead to postal service disrup­tions, partic­u­larly in the crit­ical weeks lead­ing up to voter regis­tra­tion dead­lines, when most regis­tra­tions typic­ally occur.

Bolster online regis­tra­tion

  • Online voter regis­tra­tion (OVR) systems must be bolstered to ensure they can accom­mod­ate a surge in use.
    • OVR systems should be tested and their capa­city bolstered to ensure that they can handle surges in web traffic.
    • In the juris­dic­tions that manu­ally process online regis­tra­tions, OVR systems should be auto­mated end to end, so that both the submis­sion and the processing of regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions occur elec­tron­ic­ally.
      • This will require a signi­fic­ant infu­sion of resources imme­di­ately
      • If regis­tra­tion processing is still manual, then juris­dic­tions will need a signi­fic­ant increase in staff­ing to process regis­tra­tions, and contin­gency plans will be needed to ensure that regis­tra­tions are processed if govern­ment offices close.
  • States that link OVR systems to depart­ment of motor vehicle (DMV) data­bases should ensure that citizens without DMV records can still register online.
    • Ideally, states should ensure that the exist­ing OVR system is capable of processing online regis­tra­tions for regis­trants without DMV records (captur­ing signa­tures from other govern­ment data­bases or allow­ing voters to provide signa­tures when they first vote).
    • Altern­at­ively, states should provide a secure altern­at­ive elec­tronic method to register to vote for those who cannot access the OVR system.
  • States that do not have OVR should work to set up such a system imme­di­ately.
    • This will require a signi­fic­ant infu­sion of resources in the short term.
    • If that is not achiev­able, states should set up altern­at­ive elec­tronic systems for regis­tra­tion.

Increase staff­ing

  • Voter regis­tra­tion processing capa­city should be enhanced with addi­tional staff­ing to address a surge in voter interest and major disrup­tions to normal processes.
    • States that offer same-day regis­tra­tion (SDR) should prepare for an even greater surge in same-day regis­tra­tions, if voters were unable to register in advance due to govern­ment office clos­ures.
    • States without SDR should anti­cip­ate need­ing addi­tional polling place staff­ing on Elec­tion Day to accom­mod­ate emer­gency addi­tion of an SDR option.

Flex­ible regis­tra­tion dead­lines

  • States should prepare to extend voter regis­tra­tion dead­lines in light of anti­cip­ated govern­ment office shut­downs, online access diffi­culties, and break­downs in other voter regis­tra­tion systems.
    • An exten­sion should be mandat­ory if large numbers of voters are unable to leave their homes, if govern­ment regis­tra­tion offices close, or if there are disrup­tions to online service as the voter regis­tra­tion dead­line approaches.
    • If disrup­tions continue beyond the exten­ded voter regis­tra­tion dead­line, states should offer same-day regis­tra­tion and voting for voters affected by disrup­tions.
  • Voters who submit timely regis­tra­tions should be permit­ted to vote and have their votes coun­ted, even if mail disrup­tions prevent their regis­tra­tions from reach­ing elec­tion offi­cials. To accom­plish this, states should adopt one of the follow­ing options:
    • allow SDR for all voters in this elec­tion;
    • offer SDR (with a regu­lar ballot) for voters who affirm that they submit­ted timely regis­tra­tions or were unable to do so due to Covid-19; or
    • provide a provi­sional ballot to voters who affirm that they submit­ted timely regis­tra­tions and ensure that those ballots are coun­ted in a manner that does not penal­ize regis­trants for disrup­tions to the mail delay­ing receipt of voter regis­tra­tions.
    • States should also count all provi­sional ballots cast by voters whose regis­tra­tions were delayed by mail disrup­tions. In the event of mail disrup­tions, post­mark dates alone should not be considered dispos­it­ive of timeli­ness, and elec­tion offi­cials should accept other indic­a­tions by the U.S. Postal Service that the ballot was mailed on or before the close of polls on Elec­tion Day.

5. Voter Education and Manipulation Prevention

Fear and confu­sion around a pandemic create a fertile envir­on­ment for disin­form­a­tion and efforts to manip­u­late the elect­oral process for improper purposes and partisan gain. State offi­cials, advoc­ates, and citizens should take steps to guard against the use of Covid-19 to suppress voters or other­wise manip­u­late the elec­tion.

  • States and local­it­ies should be clear and trans­par­ent about changes to voting rules.
  • Aggress­ive public educa­tion campaigns must be moun­ted to inform voters regard­ing changes to voting rules and options.
    • Enhanced advert­ising in languages other than English should be provided to ensure that all voters under­stand changes to voting rules and options.
    • Elec­tion websites should be made fully access­ible to voters with disab­il­it­ies.
    • Fund­ing will be needed to reach large numbers of voters affected by changes to voting rules and options.
  • States will also need to plan to combat disin­form­a­tion about voting rules changes, includ­ing strength­en­ing the resi­li­ency of tools for voter inform­a­tion like polling place lookup websites.