Exercising our civic duty to vote could become challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. What can we expect for the next election?
While there is uncertainty around how states will prepare for it, a move towards increased vote-by-mail seems inevitable. Western states’ residents have long participated in their elections from afar. Before COVID-19 pandemic Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado already led in vote-by-mail.
States that already mastered massive vote-by-mail systems are serving as informal information clearinghouses for others, dispensing advice on everything from how to line up the best vendors for printing and distributing paper ballots to setting up drive-by or other drop-off points for voters.
However, for states that don’t have a history of vote-by-mail, it’s not an easy endeavor. The logistics of transitioning to vote-by-mail is a big undertaking and they have to take into consideration everyone, including their Limited English Proficient (LEP) communities.
Sightline Institute; Source: National Conference of State Legislatures
Are all registered voters going to receive a vote-by-mail ballot?
On May 8, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that his state will mail a ballot to all registered voters for the November general election. This is a significant decision as California and many states seek to protect both voting rights and public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As mentioned above, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah already mail out ballots to all registered voters. For all other states that have not taken this initiative, registered voters must apply to vote by mail.
What type of challenges could states face when deploying vote-by-mail?
The CARES Act, passed in late March, included $400 million to help states run elections during the pandemic, but some states have raised concerns that they may not be able to access the funds because of restrictions. To address the restriction concerns, $4 billion has been identified to be set aside for voting by mail upon approval by lawmakers as the fourth COVID-19 stimulus package.
Funding is not the only challenge. In New York City, the Board of Elections will begin mailing 3.6 million absentee ballot applications to voters, but with the national envelope shortage and requirement to provide prepaid postage so voters can return their ballot for free, there are real challenges for everyone.
Additionally, there are myriad additional risks and hazards that could affect the elections such as power outages, wildfires, cyber-attacks, and even regular influenza that may occur at the same time.
Are the risks greater for states’ LEP communities?
While it is difficult to predict, there are legitimate feelings of fear and risks that there won’t be enough resources to care for all aspects concerning LEP communities. Translating outreach materials into all languages won’t be feasible. State and County officials will have to focus on the highest demand – from one county to another, the needs in translation could look very different. Unfortunately, some languages won’t make the cut as officials will have to prioritize due to their tight budgets.
What will happen to poll workers (bilingual or other)? Even with increased vote-by-mail options, it is likely that many states will see some kind of in-person voting. Poll workers are essential, but are they putting themselves at risk? And in the lead up to the election, what will happen to their scheduled in-person training? In the event that a poll worker becomes ill due to the COVID-19 virus during training, for example, the entire team may have to be quarantined, leaving a staffing shortage. Poll worker understanding of language access rights on Election Day is essential, and this topic is just one part of the critical in-person training that counties carry out each cycle. There are concerns that online training may not be sufficient as a substitution.
For states and counties where vote-by-mail ballot use is already high, the financial impact will be less significant than for those with low historical vote-by-mail numbers. Montana for example, with 63% historical vote-by-mail, will not see costs as high as North Dakota, where only 29% of voters voted by mail in 2018.
Another consideration is the use of facsimile ballots in polling stations. We talked to one of our CA county partners, who laminates facsimile (sample) ballots for voters to take to the booth for comparison. While this solution may work for in-person voting, to provide this for an absentee ballot would mean printing and mailing the facsimile as well. This comes with additional cost, but also a huge risk that a voter might fill out the wrong version, and so additional measures must be taken to lower this risk.
To assist states with the upcoming election, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission regularly updates its website with new election management resources. States planning to mail a ballot to all registered voters for the November general election may find this Vote By Mail Project Timeline useful.
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