Seven Thoughts on Voting in Age of Covid-19

The following is a series of thoughts about the response of the election community in light of the unfolding health emergency. These thoughts are current as of the moment they are written—Monday morning, March 16, 2020—and will no doubt change as the situation evolves.

1. The election must go on. If we want a government headed by elected officials, we have to elect them. There may be opportunities for delaying primary elections, but the date of the November general election is hard-wired, through statute and the constitution. That’s a hard constraint around which we must design a response.

2. Responses to the crisis must be based on the best scientific evidence we have. Evidence about the public health crisis is grounded in medical science, obviously, and we all will be learning from medical and other scientific experts about how to protect ourselves. There is evidence from the social sciences (including management science) that can also be used to inform best practices that are consistent with best medical practice.

3. Confidence in the election must be maintained as accommodations are made. The research suggests that three major factors affect voter confidence: (1) whether your favored candidate won the election, (2) whether you had a good experience when you voted, and (3) whether a major election practice is new. Election administrators can’t (shouldn’t!) influence who wins, but it should be recognized that any change to election practices—even if bolstered by impartial scientific evidence made with the best of nonpartisan intentions—will be interpreted through a partisan lens. If states make changes to election laws without bipartisan buy-in, a “legitimacy tax” will be paid in November. In addition, radical changes to election administration are rarely made in presidential years, and for good reason. Big changes to policy generally require big changes to processes, training, equipment, real estate, etc. Without attention to managing these changes, the voter experience risks taking a hit. Finally, voters in different parts of the country regard certain types of voting as more or less legitimate. To be quite precise about this, voters living in states where everyone, from elected officials to rank-and-file voters, has believed all their lives that mail voting as an invitation to election fraud, are unlikely to spin on a dime in their attitudes.

4. There may be a lot of latitude in current laws already to adapt to the Covid-19 emergency. Incremental changes may get us the rest of the way. Over the past 30 years, there’s been an organic shift in most states toward more convenient ways of voting. Taking the next step in that evolution may be the right avenue for most states. If you already have a huge permanent absentee list, the next step—mailing a ballot to everyone—may not be such a big lift. If you require an excuse to vote absentee, making it clear that the need to enforce social distancing falls under the medical excuse may work. Bottom line: states and localities can ask what sort of flexibility they have within established laws before they take on the task of major reform under current circumstances.

5. We are about to learn a lot about balancing the need to socially distance with the need to socially congregate. Election officials will benefit from that learning. Yes, we need to self-isolate. At the same time, it is likely that feeding stations will need to be set up in urban and suburban areas, kids of parents who fill critical jobs will be send to attend day care in large numbers, and we all will need to go to grocery stores to shop for food. These realities will demand that we learn how to queue up, transact business, and move about in an enclosed environment while minimizing health risks. What we learn from these everyday transactions will inform how election officials will want to approach November.

6. Capacity planning will be as critical as changing voting laws and regulations. All approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 emergency will challenge the capacity of the election process. Even if mail balloting increases by a meager 10% in 2020 (compared to 2016), that will burden election officials significantly. (The “flatten the curve” point being made about spreading out the timeline of Covid-19 infection has it application to election administration, as well.)

7. The campaigns will have an important role to play in helping “spread the vote.” In recent years, the expansion of mail and in-person early voting has been partially driven by the efforts of the political campaigns to encourage people to vote before the Election Day. Of course, they do this because they believe it is politically advantageous. I have no doubt in my mind that efforts by the campaigns in 2020 to encourage supporters to vote early, either by mail or in person, will fall on more receptive ears than in the past.