Health and Healthcare Systems

Voting in a pandemic: How COVID-19 will change the US elections

Patrick Kapple, right, waits in line outside Riverside University High School to cast a ballot during the presidential primary election held amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Acker - RC2XZF9P7TOM

Your questions about the US presidential election and COVID-19, answered. Image: REUTERS/Daniel Acker

Miriam Schive
Community Lead, Regional Strategies – North America, World Economic Forum
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Civic Participation

  • A second wave of the coronavirus could hit the United States close to the presidential election on 3 November.
  • State and local governments must consider options like voting by mail and expanding in-person polling stations, but these are costly and have challenges.
  • The US election is unlikely to be postponed.

On 3 November 2020, the people of the United States are scheduled to cast their ballots in the 59th presidential election. The choices are now clear: re-elect the incumbent President Donald Trump, or vote in former Vice President Joe Biden.

What is far less clear is how, exactly, voters will be able to exercise their right in a way that is free, fair, accessible, secure and safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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How COVID-19 is affecting the US election

Since the primary method of preventing the spread of the coronavirus is creating social distance, the normal interactive and assembly-driven process of primaries, campaigns and party conventions has been severely interrupted. Experts are already warning of a potentially worse second wave of the coronavirus later this year, making the threat of continued disruption far from hypothetical. Because elections are highly decentralized in the US, thousands of state and local systems must make their own calls on how to move forward with administering the elections.

Wisconsin’s primary election on 7 April demonstrated the ensuing complications. After Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ executive order to postpone the primaries until June was challenged by the Republican-controlled legislature, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court voted along ideological lines to proceed with the 7 April vote as planned. Voters were left with a difficult choice: adhere to federal guidelines and a mandated stay-at-home order, or face the possible health risk and exercise their right to vote in person.

While close to 70% of voters chose to mail-in their ballots, others waited for hours in long lines, six feet apart, to cast their ballots at the few operating polling stations. Several voters seem to have contracted COVID-19 as a result.

Absentee Voting Rate Spikes Wisconsin 2020
Wisconsin saw a huge spike in absentee and mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: NPR/Wisconsin Elections Commission

Sixteen states have decided to postpone their primary contests to dates later in the summer, but there is no guarantee that stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines will be lifted by then. A few states have moved to voting entirely by mail, but the decision isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Why not just vote by mail?

While five US states already conduct elections (nearly) entirely by mail, voting by mail is a costly and time-consuming process with its fair share of complications. The process is expensive, requiring printing mail-in ballots, which are different from in-person voting ballots; mailing the ballots, including pre-paid return postage to ensure poorer communities are not marginalized by the process; and ultimately, processing the filled-out ballots, which requires the acquisition of specialized machines and training of poll workers to use them. This also presupposes that states have addresses for all eligible voters, but that is not always the case. Some states make it easy to register as a voter or update an address online, but many do not – and the issue of expanding or tightening voter registration laws has been the subject of deep partisan divides. Changing to a vote-by-mail system also requires extensive public information campaigns to ensure voters are aware of the changes and their voting options.

Which states have the strongest support for vote by mail
In the midst of a pandemic, Americans support voting by mail. Image: YouGov

But even under the best circumstances, some voters will either not receive or be able to mail their ballot, and this requires contingency planning for at least limited in-person voting. Ohio’s vote, which was postponed from 17 March and changed to postal voting by 28 April, will be the first US test case.

Why not just increase in-person voting options?

States have a set of options to improve the possibilities for in-person voting to be compliant with the social distancing guidelines. In order to avoid overcrowding at polling stations, states might expand the number of polling stations available in their district. However, this will also be costly as it requires hiring and training additional volunteers and election officials, providing protective equipment and buying additional voting machines. States could also expand options for early voting to spread out the crowds over several days, but this would similarly require more staff.

Can we postpone the election?

Postponement of the US election – while technically possible – is not a likely scenario. The President cannot unilaterally postpone Election Day. The US Congress could enact legislation to postpone Election Day, but this would need to be signed by the President and would be subject to legal challenge. There is also little flexibility in how long the election could be postponed, because the US Constitution mandates that the new terms of the Congress and President begin on 3 January and 20 January, respectively. Additionally, there is no precedent in US history of moving the federal elections – including during the US Civil War, World War I, World War II, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and even during the Spanish Flu.

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So, what’s the solution?

Congressional representatives are working (mostly from home) to pass legislation to help states prepare for holding elections in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed with bipartisan support and allocated $400 million in grants to help states “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”

But many representatives are pushing for additional legislation to guide states through this crisis. The non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice released a detailed plan to protect the 2020 vote during the pandemic. It estimates it will need $2 billion of funding to implement the plan. Congress may agree to allocate additional funds, but most of this funding will have to come from state budgets, which are already overstretched from dealing with the health crisis.

Ensuring a free and fair election this November will not be simple or cheap. But as the recent elections in South Korea demonstrated, with careful planning and adequate investments, it is possible to pull off elections in the middle of a pandemic. If there is an opportunity in every crisis, perhaps this pandemic provides an opportunity for the US to invest in improvements to make the election process more accessible and inclusive – and ensure they’re resilient in the face of future disruptions.

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