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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

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. foot­note1_o6zd8b4 1 National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, “Online Voter Regis­tra­tion,” Feb. 3, 2020,­tions-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. foot­note2_i7n9q5u 2 Bren­nan Center for Justice, “Prepar­ing Your State for an Elec­tion Under Pandemic Condi­tions,” last updated Apr. 27, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­­ing-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. foot­note3_m9587pe 3 See e.g., Cook County Clerk’s Office, “Voter Regis­tra­tion Activ­ity, by Month and Year,” accessed Apr. 30, 2020, https://stage-drupal.cook­­tra­tion-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,­ics/taylor-swift-voter-regis­tra­tion.html (“In Octo­ber 2016, 405,000 people registered on,…, 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. foot­note4_zz28c5n 4 Matthew 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. foot­note5_zsmm­rqb 5 Five 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. foot­note6_458qqxo 6 Matthew 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. foot­note7_ywdq6wt 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,­ments/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. foot­note8_wkc2hnl 8 Nick 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. foot­note9_3a06jto 9 Center for Public Integ­rity, “Ohio’s Mail-in Ballot Brouhaha: A Sign of Coming Trouble?,” Apr. 28, 2020, https://publicin­teg­­ics/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,” Clev­e­, last updated Apr. 24, 2020, https://www.clev­e­­tions-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. foot­note10_p1a7kty 10 Wiscon­sin Elec­tions Commis­sion, “Absentee Voting Stat­ist­ics,” accessed May 2020, https://elec­­a­tions/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. foot­note11_edid­jx3 11 Cali­for­nia 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. foot­note12_9a84gx7 12 James 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. foot­note13_37b4ljj 13 For examples of price differ­ences, see Aquene Freech­ild & Hamdi Soysal, “Cost of Count­ing the Vote,” Public Citizen, May 31, 2018,­ment_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. foot­note14_brc7j6s 14 Eric Poole, “State Law To Force Elec­tion Changes in Mercer County,” Allied News, Nov. 13, 2019, https://www.allied­­tion-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. foot­note15_5773zr1 15 Wiscon­sin Elec­tions Commis­sion, “Absentee Voting Stat­ist­ics,” https://elec­­a­tions/stat­ist­ics/absentee; Wiscon­sin Elec­tions Commis­sion, "Absentee Ballots Issued Exceeds 225,000,” Apr. 3, 2016, https://elec­  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. foot­note16_5csp­cm9 16 This 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/voter­ab­sent­  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. foot­note17_5h17wl7 17 CISA’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,­tion-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. foot­note18_489q1ej 18 Accord­ing 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://data­­en­tId=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. foot­note19_ngxm5jh 19 See, e.g., Norm­ing­ton Petts, Battle­ground Survey of African Amer­ic­ans, Black­Pac, Apr. 2020,­hs­gi­wgnS­NQv3p0C­chJJ2AG­S­J76Irg/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. foot­note20_uq1u1jl 20 U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, Voting by Mail/ Absentee Voting, “Ballot Drop Box,” (resource created by Cyber­se­cur­ity and Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency), accessed May 6, 2020,­tion-offi­cials/voting-by-mail-absentee-voting.  At a minimum, every elec­tion juris­dic­tion should provide drop boxes at its main county or city office build­ing. foot­note21_7bftkk7 21 U.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.  foot­note22_7u5ku2l 22 Cali­for­nia 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. foot­note23_jgztxii 23 Cali­for­nia 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


  • 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


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


  • 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


  • 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