Depending on how severe the coronavirus pandemic is during the November presidential election, many people may prefer to cast ballots from the comfort of their own homes rather than venturing out to the polls.
The pandemic has already had an effect on the election process, with a massive influx in absentee balloting during the primaries. Absentee balloting hasn’t been without headaches, and at times, has led to logistical nightmares. In Ohio and Wisconsin, for instance, the crushing numbers of absentee ballot requests, along with post office delays, resulted in some votes not being counted.
But it’s not just COVID that’s creating problems; it’s also a huge surge in people voting. It’s a trend we’ve been seeing since 2018.
“We had the highest turnout rate for a midterm election in 2018 since 1914, so over one hundred years,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
States are preparing for what could be an unprecedented number of absentee ballots this November.
Paul Pate is President of the National Association of Secretaries of State, an organization made up of the country’s top election officials. Pate, who serves in Iowa, said, “I’ll use our primary for an example, we just recently had here in Iowa. I think it was like almost 80 percent voted absentee. That’s huge. Absentee is usually about 40 percent, tops.”
In a typical election year, five states, of different political stripes, send mail-in ballots to all voters in all elections. More than half a dozen states have what’s called “no excuse” absentee balloting, where voters can get an absentee ballot without giving a reason. In the remaining states, voters need an acceptable excuse to cast an absentee ballot, such as illness, disability, or absence from their voting county.
This year, COVID-19 is leading more states to temporarily make it easier to vote in the primaries and the general election without having to go anywhere. A number of states are sending mail-in ballots or requests for them to all voters and, in cases where an excuse is needed, making fear of getting coronavirus an acceptable one.
In several states, the question over whether to relax the rules has led to litigation.
It’s also created logistical challenges for the states. States need to buy new equipment, educate voters on new processes and deadlines, and hire staff willing to work in a pandemic at a time when state and local governments are dealing with budget crises.
Officials say they’re busy getting ready. “We're spending a lot of time working with the folks who conduct the elections on the ground, the local folks, to see what worked and what do we want to continue to do? What do we need to improve on?” said Pate.
But between lawsuits and logistics, there’s worry about fraud. In North Carolina in 2018, authorities uncovered an absentee ballot scheme on behalf of a Republican congressional candidate. Fraud is a concern often brought up by the president, who has said on multiple occasions that mail-in ballots are subject to fraud.
Experts say while fraud does happen, it is seen as exceedingly rare when compared with all votes cast.
“There's always going to be someone who tries to game the system. But from what we know, those are isolated incidents,” McDonald said.
Despite the challenges, officials say they’re preparing to hold a safe and fair election in the most challenging of times.
“I would just assure voters across the country that we have one of the best voting systems in the world and that they should have confidence in their election officials,” said Pate. “We've done a good job and we're learning every day.”
If you do mail in a ballot, experts advise you to familiarize yourself with your state’s rules, request it early, read all instructions on the ballot carefully, and return it as soon as possible to ensure your vote is counted.