Elections in the Time of COVID-19

Posted on May 8, 2020

woman going into polling place

Today’s Buzz is by Brianna Lennon — connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

What I’m Listening To (in the background): Parks and Recreation, Season 5, Episode 13, Emergency Response (featuring Leslie’s contingency planning for avian flu)

Even on a good day, planning for Election Day has its own share of uncertainties and challenges. Throw in a worldwide pandemic and local election authorities across the country are losing sleep planning how to legally, safely, and securely get ballots into voters’ hands this year. Contingency planning is part of the job, but the ability to be adaptable is paramount now. That said, the discussion about how to run elections in 2020 has become extremely politicized and oversimplified. Since I have an election to administer on June 2nd, this issue is personal for me so I wanted to share three thoughts to keep in mind as we continue to talk about what our elections will look like in November.

  1. Changing wholesale elections processes is like changing the course of a huge ship. If you have your sights set on a destination (say, transitioning from a primarily polling place-based Election Day to a more mail-based system), you can only get there by having an adequate amount of time to turn the boat. The ship’s course is set months in advance and there are a lot of unchangeable elements to it (i.e. we can’t suddenly expect a staff of two to mail out thousands of ballots by themselves while also running all the other parts of a clerk’s office). Six months to the November election sounds like a long time, but it’s really not. Taking Missouri as an example, between now and November 3rd, we also have elections to run in June and August as well as thousands of initiative petition signatures to check in June and July. Time is a finite resource so decisions made today impact what our elections are going to look like in November, which brings me to my second issue.
  2. It’s really hard to internalize that election administrators have to make decisions for future elections based on today’s information. Here’s one example. In order for me to have a successful election, one of the biggest needs is having enough, or at least enough well-placed, polling places. On March 11, one day after our presidential preference primary, we started reaching out to all of our normal polling places about their availability for the upcoming April 7th municipal election. All of them said yes. Almost overnight, the nationwide impact of COVID-19 intensified and a week later Missouri moved the April 7th election to June 2nd. At that point, nearly every polling place was still a yes, but as reality settled in, many had to pull out. To be clear, I completely understand and empathize with anyone that has to decide whether to allow their facility to be thrown open for a day to serve as a polling place while many of us are still under stay-at-home orders. The challenge for running an election is that we have to lock in our locations weeks ahead of time because we need to plan ballot, equipment, and poll worker allocation, not to mention give voters advance notice (by mail) of where to go vote. We want everyone making decisions with complete certainty, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.
  3. Election laws are not always the same as public health recommendations. This is actually my greatest frustration because it shouldn’t be the case. The CDC’s first election recommendation is to encourage voters to utilize mail-in options when casting their ballots. However, as it stands, Missouri a heavily in-person voting state and we have no early voting or no-excuse absentee voting options for voters. Missouri’s county clerks are pushing for reform to better serve voters, but change is not assured. We’re also not alone in needing flexibility in our statutes–local election administrators in many states are asking their governors and legislators to make changes that don’t force voters to choose between exercising their constitutional right and adhering to public health guidelines.

As Election Day nears, we’re all doing the best we can to prepare for the unique challenges facing elections administration this year. It’s likely our elections will have a different look and feel than in years past, but they will be conducted with the same integrity, security, and accessibility that voters deserve.

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