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Voters Need Safe and Sanitary In-Person Voting Options

Despite the coronavirus, states must make every effort to offer meaningful access to safe polling locations for in-person voting.

Published: March 31, 2020
Voter in surgical mask exiting a polling place.
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty

The Bren­nan Center has laid out the crit­ical adjust­ments that must be made to our voting system to ensure safe and fair elec­tions this Novem­ber in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Increased access to vote-by-mail is a key part of the plan, as many voters may face quar­ant­ine and illness. Safe and healthy polling places are also crit­ical: giving every voter access to a mail ballot option will not replace all polling place voting, and it should not come at the expense of access to polling places. The anti­cip­ated shift to large-scale mail voting will put signi­fic­ant strains on our elec­tion systems; polling sites serve as a fail-safe to correct any prob­lems that may arise and ensure eligible citizens can vote.

In the ordin­ary course, new voting proced­ures typic­ally cause disrup­tions and prob­lems the first time they are used. This prob­lem will be compoun­ded by the sheer magnitude of the shift to mail-voting, coupled with the chaos and confu­sion caused by the virus. The real­ity is that many voters, espe­cially in communit­ies and demo­graphic groups with poor mail access, are used to voting in-person, prefer to do so, and will not be will­ing or able to vote by mail. Those voters will need safe and healthy in-person voting options this Novem­ber.

A nation­wide, mail only elec­tion is not real­istic.

The 2020 general elec­tion is only seven months away — it is not real­istic to expect that every state will be able to fully adopt a vote-by-mail system that is access­ible to all voters by then. There are only five states that currently send every voter a vote-at-home ballot (Color­ado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Wash­ing­ton). Only four other states (Arizona, Cali­for­nia, Montana, and New Mexico) received a major­ity of ballots by mail in 2018. In fact, 27 states and the District of Colom­bia received fewer than 10 percent of votes by mail in 2018.

An all-mail elec­tion for those juris­dic­tions would entail between a 10-fold and 60-fold increase in mail-voting. While it is crit­ical that those juris­dic­tions afford every voter the oppor­tun­ity to receive a mail ballot, many juris­dic­tions may not be able to do so without signi­fic­ant gaps. They also may not be able to handle the admin­is­trat­ive load effect­ively if every voter takes that oppor­tun­ity. Even states that typic­ally hold their elec­tions primar­ily by mail offer in-person voting oppor­tun­it­ies, though not as much as would be needed in states without a mail-voting culture.

A change of this magnitude will undoubtedly create a lot of confu­sion and error for voters and elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors. Mail-voting without polling places would also lead to wide­spread disen­fran­chise­ment. For example, nation­wide, over 430,000 mail ballots were rejec­ted in 2018 because of mail delays, minor tech­nical defects, and voter errors, among other reas­ons. And the impact can hit under­rep­res­en­ted communit­ies hard­est: in some states, Black, Latino, Asian, and other minor­it­ies have had their vote-by-mail ballots rejec­ted at much higher rates than white voters.

When things go wrong, polling sites provide a neces­sary fail-safe in mail ballot systems.

As states ramp up vote-by-mail options, polling sites are needed as a back up to address prob­lems with mail voting, so that voters who do not receive their mail ballots or have a prob­lem with their ballots can still vote. Prob­lems are ines­cap­able, both because of the dramatic changes to the voting process this year and because of inev­it­able errors and glitches in mail-voting systems. Polling sites serve as a crit­ical backup to address these prob­lems and resolve eligib­il­ity ques­tions. They may be the only option for most voters who do not receive their mail ballots or exper­i­ence prob­lems with those ballots.

  • Trans­ition glitches: When states roll out new elec­tion reforms or systems, they typic­ally exper­i­ence trans­ition prob­lems. For example, the lines in Los Angeles during the primary were attrib­uted, at least in part, to the roll-out of new voting tech­no­logy and the intro­duc­tion of vote centers. The melt­down in the vote-count­ing process in the Demo­cratic Iowa caucuses was due largely to the use of a new and untested report­ing app. The sheer magnitude of the changes required this year to allow for wide­spread mail-voting will compound the prob­lem. To the extent that glitches in the system prevent voters from obtain­ing their ballots by mail, polling place voting may be their only option for parti­cip­at­ing.
  • Data errors: Data entry errors — espe­cially as elec­tion work­ers, many of them tempor­ary, are rush­ing to process voter regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions and mail ballot applic­a­tions — could prevent voters from receiv­ing their ballots. Errors as small as a mistyped or trans­posed number or a “St” instead of an “Ave,” either on a voter’s applic­a­tion or made in the data entry process, could lead to a ballot never arriv­ing at the correct address. In some juris­dic­tions, the number of errors on exist­ing voter rolls may be espe­cially high. In 2012, the Pew Center on the States found that 1 in 8 voter-regis­tra­tion records in the United States had signi­fic­ant errors.
  • Mail-deliv­ery prob­lems: Even when an elec­tions office has a voter’s correct address, her ballot may not reach her on time or at all, through no fault of the voter’s. Even without a pandemic, mail ballots may be lost, delayed, or deemed undeliv­er­able. For example, if a voter’s name is not listed on the mail­box, or the mail­box is full, postal work­ers may be reluct­ant to deliver mail there. This is more likely this year as Covid-19 has forced many people into new and tempor­ary living situ­ations. Ordin­ary mail disrup­tions will also be greater. Mail delays have increased in recent years. And the pandemic is already strain­ing the postal service. There may also be disrup­tions to the post office work­force caused by Covid-19. Polling places ensure that voters facing these prob­lems can vote, too.
  • Eligib­il­ity issues: States ought to relax voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion or other docu­ment­a­tion require­ments during the pandemic, as it will be diffi­cult or impossible for voters to obtain iden­ti­fic­a­tion amidst govern­ment office shut­downs. Nonethe­less, some states likely will not do so, and there may be circum­stances in which certain voters will need to verify their iden­tit­ies. Under some state mail voting systems, voters are required to include a copy of their iden­ti­fic­a­tion when they return their ballots. Without relax­ing those draconian rules, voters without access to copy­ing or print­ing equip­ment could be shut out. Polling places not only allow voters to show their iden­ti­fic­a­tion to an elec­tion worker, but they also allow voters who do not have the required ID to take advant­age of fail-safe proced­ures to demon­strate their iden­tit­ies and vote. And voters who do not receive a mail ballot because of eligib­il­ity ques­tions can more easily resolve those issues in person at a polling place than by mail.

Some voters cannot, or do not want to, vote by mail.

Many Amer­ic­ans do not have access to reli­able mail deliv­ery, and many do not have conven­tional mail­ing addresses for ballot deliv­ery. Elim­in­at­ing polling sites would completely disen­fran­chise these voters. Inef­fect­ive mail service is more common in poor and minor­ity communit­ies as well as in rural communit­ies. Many Native Amer­ican reser­va­tions do not have resid­en­tial street addresses that are recog­nized by the postal services, and the resid­ents on those reser­va­tions have to rely on P.O. boxes that are far from their homes, often shared with multiple famil­ies. Many home­less people also do not have ready access to reli­able mail service.

Other voters, who are accus­tomed to visit­ing their Elec­tion Day polling place to cast a ballot, will be reluct­ant or even suspi­cious of cast­ing their vote any other way. This is espe­cially true for Latino, African-Amer­ican, and younger voters in some states, who use vote-by-mail at lower rates than other voters. For some of these voters, the choice is driven by distrust in the post office. One study found that voters of color were far less likely to trust the post office than white voters. Even in states where vote-by-mail is widely avail­able, a signi­fic­ant number of voters choose to deliver their completed ballots to polling sites, instead of return­ing them through the mail.

Many essen­tial voter services work best when they are provided at polling places.

For many voters, the services they need to vote privately and inde­pend­ently are avail­able at polling sites and are more chal­len­ging to access via mail.

  • Voters with disab­il­it­ies: Voting by mail is diffi­cult or impossible for people with certain visual and dexter­ity disab­il­it­ies without substan­tial assist­ance. In contrast, specially-designed voting machines avail­able at polling sites allow voters with disab­il­it­ies to vote privately and inde­pend­ently. Indeed, stud­ies find that the major­ity of voters with disab­il­it­ies prefer to vote in-person.
  • Voters need­ing language assist­ance: More than 16 million Amer­ic­ans rely on the legally mandated bilin­gual assist­ance and trans­lated mater­i­als they get at polling sites to vote. While it is crit­ical that states provide simil­arly trans­lated mater­i­als by mail, there will undoubtedly be gaps. And, in any event, voters with language assist­ance needs will not have an elec­tion worker profi­cient in their language in front of them to ask ques­tions unless they go to a polling place.
  • Voters need­ing to register on the day they vote: Voters in 20 states use some form of “Elec­tion-Day regis­tra­tion,” which means that a voter can register and vote on the same day. The consensus among polit­ical scient­ists is that turnout in states that have adop­ted this policy is as much as five percent­age points higher than in other states, partic­u­larly among young people, people with low incomes, and people of color. The current crisis only elev­ates the import­ance of this option, as millions of voters will have diffi­culty access­ing voter regis­tra­tion, and voters displaced by the pandemic will need to register at their new resid­ences. Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion is currently only avail­able in person. If polling places are shut down, many prospect­ive voters will find them­selves shut out of the elec­tion as a result.

Covid-19 poses an unpre­ced­en­ted chal­lenge to elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. Expan­ded access to vote-by-mail is a crit­ical compon­ent of any plan to address the crisis, but it cannot be the only compon­ent. We do not know what the state of the pandemic will be in Novem­ber, but states must make every effort to continue to offer mean­ing­ful access to in-person voting polling loca­tions that are safe and sanit­ary.