State Election Preparations During COVID-19: Legislative Trends

By: Rachel Wright, Research Associate

Both public health guidelines and the desire among state officials to protect poll workers and voters alike have prompted states to implement changes to voting procedures throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Governors in over 17 states have issued executive orders delaying elections and prioritizing mail ballots. Furthermore, over 200 bills have been proposed by legislators that seek to enhance the ability of voters to safely cast their ballot as well as help elections officials to process and count mail ballots.

Throughout the pandemic, states may be facing a common public health challenge, however, preparations for upcoming elections demonstrate the need for diversity among their approaches. Qualifications for receiving a mail-in ballot differ substantially across states as well as the deadlines for receiving these ballots. States also possess different administrative capacities and face budget constraints that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Recognizing these realities, the National Association of Secretaries of State recently affirmed that, “there is no one size fits all approach, but instead a 50-state solution” to ensuring voters are able to cast their ballot throughout the crisis.

Expanding Absentee Voting Eligibility

Currently, states have been tasked with ensuring that the approximately 214 million registered voters are able to cast their ballot without facing greater than normal risks to their health. In light of existing restrictions on those who qualify to vote absentee, legislators have proposed easing eligibility requirements for those wishing to do so. Such measures have included, but are not limited to:

  • Delaware HB73 – Proposes an amendment eliminating limitations as to when an individual can vote by absentee ballot
  • Missouri HB1393 – Provides for no-excuse absentee voting
  • New Hampshire HB1672 – Allows any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot

Expanding Mail Balloting

In addition to easing restrictions on those qualified to vote absentee, numerous states are seeking to directly expand vote by mail procedures and the use of absentee ballots. Doing so would further ensure that electors are able to cast their vote despite closure of many polling place locations. Notable bills with this aim include:

  • Arizona SB1077 – Allows a county to conduct a mail ballot election for any election administered by that county, including for federal and state offices
  • Georgia HB57 – Specifies that all eligible electors shall be mailed an absentee ballot for each primary, election and runoff
  • Iowa SB90 and HB2256 – Eliminates the need to apply for an absentee ballot; Allows for each registered voter to receive a mailed absentee ballot
  • Massachusetts HD5026 (Emergency Law) – Establishes vote by mail in 2020 elections
  • Ohio HB680 – Establishes a procedure to conduct an election entirely by mail in the event of a public health emergency

Extending Deadlines for Acceptance of Mail Ballots

Potential reductions in vote processing capacity due to personal risk of exposure as well as changes in living arrangements, may complicate existing deadlines for the acceptance of mail ballots. As such, legislators have proposed extending the deadlines for accepting mail ballots. Doing so would allow electors more time to cast their vote as well as help prevent elections officials from becoming inundated with ballots needing to be processed and counted. Such recently filed legislation includes:

  • Kansas HB2659 – Allows counting of ballots received within three days after an election, if postmark shows the ballot was mailed on or before the election day
  • Pennsylvania HB1783 – Allows for canvassing of ballots mailed no later than five P.M. on the seventh day following a primary or election
  • Michigan HB5807 – Allows tabulation of ballots received within six days after an election

Extending Timeframes for Ballot Processing

Modifications to the timeframes within which mail-in ballots are accepted can only relieve a limited amount of strain on elections officials. As adjustments to voting procedures enable electors to utilize mail balloting, elections officials will inevitably receive an elevated number of ballots needing to be processed and counted. As such, state legislators have proposed changes to voting procedures to enhance the ability of these officials to do so in a timely manner. Filed bills with this intent include:

  • New Hampshire HB556 – Allows for municipalities to process, but not count, absentee ballots prior to election day
  • South Carolina SB141 and SB867 – Allows for examining return-addressed envelopes containing absentee ballots beginning on the day immediately preceding election day

Looking Forward

Although not all proposed adjustments to voting procedures will be permanent, legislators are considering the implications of the current public health crisis on future elections. Legislators in states such as New York have proposed bills authorizing studies regarding the feasibility of non-traditional voting methods such as mail, telephone and/or the internet. In Iowa, Illinois and Hawaii, state officials are deliberating legislation that expands drop box locations for absentee ballots and provides trackable return envelopes for mailed ballots. These measures will not only be important in ensuring that voters’ ballots are cast and counted in the upcoming 2020 elections, but that long-term progress is made toward ensuring state elections systems are better able to adapt to future crises.