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Preparing for Election Day: Deadlines for Running a Safe Election

State and local election officials must begin making critical purchases in a matter of weeks in order to ensure free, fair, and safe elections in November.

Published: May 11, 2020
Supply chain illustration
MSJONESNYC/BCJ

The Brennan Center has outlined a detailed plan for ensuring fair and safe elections during the Covid-19 pandemic. But implementing that plan will take time, and election jurisdictions will need to purchase and deploy critical equipment and supplies months before this November’s election. This document identifies some of those key items, explains critical deadlines, and details the potential dangerous consequences of missing those deadlines. (This is not an exhaustive list. For example, it does not cover timelines for purchasing personal protective equipment [PPE] for poll workers.)

In addition to the Brennan Center plan, this document draws from three main sources: election officials who have previously implemented some of these items, vendors who provide the identified hardware or support, and a “vote by mail project timeline” created by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) and Sector Coordinating Council (SCC).

State and local election officials must begin making purchases in a matter of weeks in order to ensure free, fair, and safe elections this fall.

Online voter registration icon

Online Voter Registration system capacity:

Begin implementation no later than May

What is it?

Online voter registration (OVR) systems allow voters to submit their applications by using a website instead of a paper form. In most cases, the system validates applications by comparing the information provided on the online registration form against information from other state databases such as from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Most states have enacted legislation to authorize online voter registration, while others have made online voter registration available without enabling legislation. 1National Conference of State Legislatures, “Online Voter Registration,” Feb. 3, 2020, https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx.

 Forty states and the District of Columbia currently offer OVR, and two additional states have approved OVR but have not yet implemented the system. 2Brennan Center for Justice, “Preparing Your State for an Election Under Pandemic Conditions,” last updated Apr. 27, 2020, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/preparing-your-state-election-under-pandemic-conditions.

Why is this important?

This year, social distancing protocols will likely lead to an increased use of OVR systems, as fewer people register or update their registration information with third-party organizations or at DMV offices, which may be closed. However, states are confronting some shortcomings and challenges as they upgrade and expand their systems. Without sufficient capacity that has been properly load tested, OVR systems can fail when too many people attempt to use the system at once. When this occurs, voters cannot register or update their information, and election offices must use intensive resources to resolve these issues during a critical time in the election cycle. To accommodate the surge in OVR activity, many states will need to expand the capacities of their existing systems, and some states will need to create an online option for voters for the first time. States launching OVR for the first time may need to deploy limited options to handle the most frequent types of transactions, such as address changes.

What are the deadlines, and what could go wrong?

Historically during presidential election years, registration rates begin increasing around August and peak in early to mid-October, in advance of state voter registration deadlines. 3See e.g., Cook County Clerk’s Office, “Voter Registration Activity, by Month and Year,” accessed Apr. 30, 2020, https://stage-drupal.cookcountyclerk-test.com/service/voter-registration-activity-month-and-year; and Matthew Haag, “Voter Registrations Spike as Deadlines Loom. Taylor Swift Had Something to Do With It,” New York Times, Oct. 9, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/09/us/politics/taylor-swift-voter-registration.html (“In October 2016, 405,000 people registered on Vote.org,..., said Raven Brooks, the website’s chief operating officer…Mr. Brooks said that the site typically sees a spike in voter registrations in October.”).

For states with existing OVR systems, it will likely take three to four months to test and deploy upgrades for additional capacity. For those currently without OVR, three to four months should be enough time to deploy limited OVR capabilities to reduce dependence on paper registration forms. 4Matthew Davis (former Chief Information Officer, Virginia Department of Elections), interview by Brennan Center for Justice, Apr. 30, 2020.

States should deploy a fully operational system no later than mid-July and perform load and stress tests by the beginning of August to ensure that the system can handle more website visitors while also detecting malicious requests. Accordingly, states must begin the implementation of new OVR systems or upgrades to existing systems no later than May so that they are ready for a surge in online transactions. When evaluating an OVR system solution, states must develop a schedule that accounts, at a high level, for system analysis, product development, integration, testing, and deployment.

OVR website failures may convince voters that there is a broader election system failure and consequently discourage them from registering altogether. Other voters may submit paper registration forms, which adds to the data-entry demands on election staff and increases error rates in the registration database. Delaying OVR improvements increases the risk of system failure and may prevent people from exercising their right to vote.

Online absentee voting icon

Online absentee applications:

Begin implementation no later than mid-July

What is it?

Online absentee ballot applications allow individual voters to request an absentee ballot electronically, without submitting paper forms. There are various possible methods for voters to apply online—by submitting a scanned absentee ballot application to a designated email address; by submitting a fillable PDF form with an electronic signature; or by submitting online through an OVR-type system. Allowing online absentee applications will produce faster processing times.

Why is this important?

While most states have implemented OVR, only 15 have expanded the use of that technology to absentee ballot requests statewide. 5Five additional states send mail ballots to all voters automatically, with no need for a request. See Brennan Center for Justice, “Preparing Your State for an Election Under Pandemic Conditions”.  Before they can implement technological solutions, many states will have to adjust administrative requirements related to the submission of absentee ballot requests, such as removing arbitrary requirements for a “wet ink” signature on applications. Without an online absentee ballot request system, election officials will have to process more paper submissions, as voters follow social distancing advice from health officials. This will require additional data-entry time and for election staff to access locations where applications are being submitted, even as they attempt to comply with social distancing protocols. Electronic submissions can reduce data-entry times and related errors and can allow election staff to process applications remotely.

What are the deadlines, and what could go wrong?

States should deploy fully operational online absentee application systems no later than August, when these requests are expected to begin surging.

Many of the recommendations for an OVR system apply to online absentee application systems. If an OVR system exists at the state level, there may be an opportunity to reuse its computer code as a foundation for the mail-in ballot request system. Conversely, jurisdictions could add a ballot request feature to the online voter registration form. These jurisdictions must begin upgrading and testing the capacity of their systems by mid-July. 6Matthew Davis (former Chief Information Officer of the Virginia Department of Elections), interview by Brennan Center for Justice, Apr. 30, 2020.

Other jurisdictions may need to build a standalone system external to the statewide system, and if so, must account for the additional analysis, infrastructure, and time required to securely collect and transfer data to the voter registration database(s). These jurisdictions must begin developing online request tools immediately. 7 Kentucky announced plans to create an online portal on April 24, 2020. See Governor Andy Beshar, “Executive Order 2020-296, State of Emergency Relating to Kentucky Elections,” Apr. 24, 2020, https://governor.ky.gov/attachments/20200424_Executive-Order_2020-296_SOE-Relating-to-Elections.pdf.

Election officials have estimated that processing a paper absentee request form takes seven to ten times longer than processing an online request. 8Nick Custodio (Deputy Commissioner, Office of Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, Chairwoman), interview by Brennan Center for Justice, Apr. 3, 2020. Ohio’s recent primary election demonstrates what can go wrong when states fail to make online absentee request tools available to voters seeking to comply with social distancing protocols. Elections staff in Ohio were flooded with far more paper request forms than in a typical election year, and many voters reported not receiving their ballots for weeks after requesting them. The only option for these voters was to venture out of their homes and vote provisionally at county election offices, in contradiction to public health recommendations to remain at home and avoid public spaces. 9Center for Public Integrity, “Ohio’s Mail-in Ballot Brouhaha: A Sign of Coming Trouble?,” Apr. 28, 2020, https://publicintegrity.org/politics/elections/ohios-mail-in-ballot-brouhaha-a-sign-of-coming-trouble/; Andrew J. Tobias, “Ohio Elections Officials: Mail Delays Could Result in Some Voters Not Getting Ballots Before April 28 Primary,” Cleveland.com, last updated Apr. 24, 2020, https://www.cleveland.com/open/2020/04/ohio-elections-officials-mail-delays-could-result-in-voters-not-getting-ballots-before-april-28-primary.html.  Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, nearly 1 percent of voters who requested a mail ballot had not received one by election day. 10Wisconsin Elections Commission, “Absentee Voting Statistics,” accessed May 2020, https://elections.wi.gov/publications/statistics/absentee.

Ballot printing icon

Ballot Printing:

Place orders by mid-June

What is it?

Ballot printing is the process of printing election-specific data and contests onto individual sheets of paper so that voters can mark their choices and cast a ballot.

States will likely need to print a vastly increased quantity of blank ballots in response to a surge of by-mail voting requests during the Covid-19 crisis. In smaller election offices in states that have minimal or restrictive vote by mail options, ballot printing may only require a modest amount of print-on-demand equipment in their local office to meet the usual demand. However, given the unprecedented current circumstances, a large number of election jurisdictions will likely need to work with third-party professional printers to fulfill much larger ballot printing orders.

Why is this important?

While printing ballots might seem like a “generic” printing process, experienced providers of election services follow exacting specifications for paper ballots that support the requirements of automated scanning software and hardware. If election jurisdictions wait too long to establish a working relationship with an experienced ballot printing provider, or if they submit their ballot printing orders too late, there may be an inadequate capacity or supply in the ballot printing marketplace to meet the needs of election officials.

What are the deadlines, and what could go wrong?

Major providers of ballot printing services have noted that ballots must be printed by September 2020 for the November 2020 election. However, the printing process also includes inserting blank mail ballots into multi-part envelope “kits,” which involves a complex assembly process and a production workflow that begins earlier. According to major printing and mail-house vendors, the deadline for setting up customer accounts, designing envelopes and artwork, preparing voter registration data and ballot quantities, and ordering necessary paper supplies should be no later than mid-June. 11California Secretary of State, “SOS November 2020 Election Subcommittee: Equipment Needed Meeting Minutes,” Apr. 2, 2020 (discussion with vendors K&H Election Services and Runbeck Election Services). Vendors have suggested that with proper planning and lead time, they can manage paper supplies without supply chain issues, but that they must know the scope of production no later than mid-summer. 12James Suver (Vice President of Business Development, Runbeck Election Services, Phoenix, Arizona), interview by Brennan Center for Justice, Apr. 13, 2020.

If election officials and their print and mail vendors do not allocate enough time to print significantly more blank ballots and to assemble their accompanying by-mail packets, voters may be unable to mark and return their mail ballot by the election deadlines.

High speed scanner icon

High-Speed Scanners:

Submit purchase orders by May

What are they?

High-speed scanners read and tabulate absentee ballots in large batches at much higher speeds than precinct-based scanners. A tabulator in a precinct can scan approximately a dozen ballots per minute, while high-speed scanners can read as many as 300 ballots per minute. However, high-speed scanners are usually 8 to 10 times more expensive than precinct scanners. 13For examples of price differences, see Aquene Freechild & Hamdi Soysal, “Cost of Counting the Vote,” Public Citizen, May 31, 2018, https://www.citizen.org/wp-content/uploads/voting_equipment_pricing_mini-report_05_31_18_final-1.pdf.  Election jurisdictions with more than 50,000 voters typically require high-speed scanners, and counties that already have this equipment may need more scanning stations due to higher-than-expected rates of mail ballot voting. 14Eric Poole, “State Law To Force Election Changes in Mercer County,” Allied News, Nov. 13, 2019, https://www.alliednews.com/news/state-law-to-force-election-changes-in-mercer-county/article_ecb122c1-f435-50cf-bb0e-3a40318b78ea.html (describing the need for two high speed scanners in Mercer County, which has about 70,000 registered voters, due to an expected increase in voting by mail stemming from legal changes that increased access to mail ballots).

Why is this important?

Absentee voting rates for the 2020 presidential election are expected to increase significantly compared to previous cycles. This trend has already impacted presidential primaries. For example, Wisconsin received more than five times the number of absentee votes during its presidential primary this April than it did in 2016. 15Wisconsin Elections Commission, “Absentee Voting Statistics,” https://elections.wi.gov/publications/statistics/absentee; Wisconsin Elections Commission, "Absentee Ballots Issued Exceeds 225,000,” Apr. 3, 2016, https://elections.wi.gov/node/3920. More than a month before the June primary, Georgia has already received more than twenty times the number of mail ballot requests as it did in 2016. 16This was calculated using data provided on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. See Georgia Secretary of State, Elections Division, “Voter Absentee Files,” accessed Apr. 29, 2020, https://elections.sos.ga.gov/Elections/voterabsenteefile.do.  The significant increase in absentee ballots means that election jurisdictions will have to count more ballots at a central location. (In contrast, in-person ballots are counted onsite at polling places.)

What are the deadlines, and what could go wrong?

Election vendors work with specialized manufacturers to fill orders for high-speed scanners. This process can take four to five months assuming there are no manufacturing supply chain issues impacting production. In order for scanners to be delivered by October 2020—the timeline required for election officials to perform necessary logic and accuracy testing on the devices—officials need to submit their purchase orders by May 2020.

If there is a shortage of high-speed scanners, jurisdictions will need to use precinct-level scanners to process absentee ballots. This will require either more scanners, more space, and more personnel to process absentee ballots, or significantly more time to tabulate ballots and obtain results. 17CISA’s Elections Infrastructure GCC and SCC discuss these downsides of using precinct scanners in their joint guidance. See U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Voting by Mail/ Absentee Voting, “Inbound Ballot Process,” accessed May 6, 2020, https://www.eac.gov/election-officials/voting-by-mail-absentee-voting.  In turn, this could drastically delay the reporting of election results compared to prior cycles, potentially by days or even weeks.

Ballot drop box icon

Ballot Drop Boxes:

Submit purchase orders by end of July

What are they?

Ballot drop boxes are locked structures operated by election officials for voters to drop off mail-in ballots. They provide a secure and convenient way for voters to return their completed ballots without using return postage or relying on the postal service. Ballot drop boxes are typically monitored by election staff or by 24-hour surveillance cameras to ensure that ballots are not tampered with or stolen. Vote-by-mail states rely heavily on ballot drop boxes. In Colorado, for example, nearly three quarters of all ballots were returned by drop box during the 2016 general election. 18According to responses to the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections. See Charles Stewart III, 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections: Final Report, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2016, https://dataverse.harvard.edu/file.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/Y38VIQ/2NJDL9&version=1.0.

Why is this important?

Voters often express greater confidence in drop box return because they can see that election officials received their ballots securely and on time. 19See, e.g., Normington Petts, Battleground Survey of African Americans, BlackPac, Apr. 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gFfhsgiwgnSNQv3p0CchJJ2AGSJ76Irg/view (showing that 60% of registered surveyed voters would prefer to either vote in person or drop their ballots off at the polling place, while only 38% would prefer to mail those ballots). Additionally, because they do not require return postage, drop boxes can provide significant cost savings for local governments.

Jurisdictions should provide one ballot drop box for every 15,000 to 20,000 voters. 20U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Voting by Mail/ Absentee Voting, “Ballot Drop Box,” (resource created by Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency), accessed May 6, 2020, https://www.eac.gov/election-officials/voting-by-mail-absentee-voting.  At a minimum, every election jurisdiction should provide drop boxes at its main county or city office building. 21U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Voting by Mail/ Absentee Voting, “Ballot Drop Box,” (resource created by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency). There should also be drop boxes at other locations that are convenient for voters, such as public transportation stops, college campuses, grocery stores, and public buildings such as libraries and community centers. Depending on the selected locations, election officials may need to obtain permits or approvals before installing drop boxes.

What are the deadlines, and what could go wrong?

Election officials must decide in advance how many ballot drop box units they will need and where they will be located. They must account for the time it will take to manufacture, deliver, and install these units. Election officials must also plan for adequate staffing and maintenance for these structures.

Given manufacturing time and increased demand, it can take four to six weeks for secure outdoor drop boxes to arrive. 22California Secretary of State, “SOS November 2020 Election Taskforce: Meeting Minutes, November 2020,” Mar. 31, 2020 (citing current turnaround times at vendor American Security Cabinet). On average, the full deployment process could take up to six to eight weeks in total, which includes additional time for installing each unit and acquiring all security equipment needed to monitor each drop box. In previous elections, some counties have needed even more time to roll out ballot drop boxes. 23California Secretary of State, “SOS November 2020 Election Taskforce: Meeting Minutes, November 2020,” Mar. 31, 2020 (citing current turnaround times at vendor American Security Cabinet). Finally, election officials will need to recruit additional staff members to monitor, maintain, and collect ballots from drop boxes. They should complete the hiring process by September 2020 to allow time for training.

Jurisdictions should make siting decisions and purchase drop boxes and supplies by the end of July 2020.


Supply Chain Planning: Chronological Summary of Important Deadlines

May

  • Begin implementation of online voter registration systems, for those states that do not already have them
  • Begin implementation of online absentee ballot application systems, for those states that do not already have a statewide online voter registration system to which a request function for mail ballot applications can be added
  • Submit purchase orders for any additional high-speed scanners

June

  • Place ballot printing and “envelope kit” orders no later than mid-June

July 

  • Deploy fully operational online voter registration systems
  • For states that already have online voter registration and are simply adding new online absentee ballot application functionality, begin implementation by mid-July
  • Submit purchase orders for ballot drop boxes no later than the end of July

August

  • Complete load and stress testing of online voter registration systems by early August
  • Deploy fully operational online absentee application systems


This publication benefitted from the work of Edward Perez and Frank Reyes. Perez, global director of technology development at the OSET Institute, is an election administration analyst to the Brennan Center for Justice’s Election Reform Program. Reyes, a former congressional innovation fellow and technology policy advisor for the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, is a technology advisor to the Brennan Center for Justice’s Election Reform Program.

End Notes