How to Cover Election Administration in the Midst of a Pandemic

The pandemic, coupled with ongoing litigation, has created a new environment for the administration of American elections. Many voters have misconceptions or concerns about voting this year, especially when they assume information they come across in national news or through social media reflects local circumstances. These misconceptions present fertile ground for misinformation, confusion, and other efforts to discourage voting and undermine confidence in our elections.

As reporting explains local changes and the potential effects on voters, journalists often highlight the challenges jurisdictions are facing in adopting new electoral practices. Research released earlier this year from the University of Texas-Austin reminds us that, to build voters’ confidence in our democratic systems, we should detail not just the challenges jurisdictions and voters may face, but also the potential solutions and how they function.

Accordingly, we’ve looked at election administration recommendations from election experts for suggested best practices that can serve as a reference point to contextualize local practices. By helping voters understand the discrepancies between the suggested practices and those in place in their jurisdictions, reporters can help voters better navigate the voting process this year. This type of reporting can also build voter confidence, highlighting that the practices jurisdictions are putting into place are often tried-and-true elsewhere.  

You can dig into the detailed best practices below, but first we’ve highlighted a few key themes, in the form of questions voters might have, to help guide your work. 

  • How do I request an absentee or mail ballot? Voters need to know how and when to request an absentee ballot and to understand it may take days or even weeks for a ballot to be sent to them. Emphasize that voters should request a ballot as early as possible.
  • What do I need to do to complete my ballot? Ballot and mailer designs may not follow best practices in most jurisdictions. Let voters know repeatedly what information they need to include on their ballot and return envelope (like personal and witness signatures), and let voters know who to contact if their requested ballot hasn’t arrived. 
  • How can I securely return my ballot? Let voters know when, where and how to return their ballots.
  • What happens after my ballot is returned? Remind voters that vote counts may take longer this year, given the increase in mail ballots. Be sure to explain why mail ballots take longer to process and count. Let voters know, too, how robust signature verification practices are in their jurisdiction; if verification training and technology is missing, voters may feel more comfortable voting in person.
  • What if there’s a mistake or issue verifying my ballot? Many states, especially key battleground states this cycle, lack “curing” processes or robust methods for contacting voters to fix errors with their ballots. Voters new to absentee voting may worry, legitimately, that they’ll make a mistake on their ballot and not be notified in time to fix it.
  • Where’s my polling place? Provide voters with updated information about polling place locations, given anticipated closures and consolidations. 
  • Is it safe to vote in person? Voters’ comfort with in-person voting may depend on the health conditions in the fall, so be sure to highlight the steps election officials are taking to ensure sanitary polling conditions and offer steps voters can take to protect themselves and others. Some voters may prefer to vote in person even during a pandemic.
  • Will there be enough poll workers to staff locations on Election Day? Share updates on the recruitment and staffing plans of election offices, and provide information to audience members about how to sign up to serve as poll workers if they feel comfortable doing so.
  • What’s a provisional ballot? Most voters (and even poll workers) are unsure about provisional ballot procedures. But confusion around registration status and polling place locations has experts anticipating a surge in provisional ballot use this year. Let voters know when they can ask for a provisional ballot, how to complete one, and what steps if any the voter can take to make sure their ballot was counted, or if not, why not.

Expert Recommendations on Election Administration Best Practices

What voters need to know about absentee/mail voting

Many Americans will vote by mail this year, but not all vote by mail/absentee systems are the same. Differences in implementation affect access, ease of participation, security, and, ultimately, whose votes get counted. We break down the vote by mail process to highlight where systems may diverge and what effect that might have on voters.  

The process typically begins with requesting an absentee ballot.

In most states, voters must request an absentee ballot in order to vote by mail. To simplify the process, most experts recommend:

  • Election officials send out absentee ballot request forms directly to registered voters and/or allow registered voters to request a ballot online. 
  • Absentee request deadlines are set at least a week before Election Day to ensure requests are processed with enough time for voters to return the ballot. USPS guidance suggests that request deadlines less than a week before Election Day are at high risk for not being delivered, completed, and/or returned by voters in time to count.
  • Allow voters to request mail ballots without an “excuse” or include coronavirus as a valid excuse.

The design and delivery of ballots can have a significant impact on whether voters vote by mail and the level of mistakes they make in completing their ballots.

Experts recommend that election officials work with the USPS to ensure the design and delivery of ballots conform with best practices: 

  • Ballot mailings should include a prominent Official Election Mail Logo on envelopes to help voters validate authenticity.
  • Envelopes should include an intelligent mail barcode to improve ballot tracking. Similarly, election officials should set up systems so voters can easily track and monitor the delivery and processing of their ballot.
  • Follow best practices for envelope design, like emphasizing signature lines and using checklists to show what actions voters need to take before returning a ballot to help voters avoid mistakes.

The available options for returning mail/absentee ballots can significantly affect whether voters choose to vote by mail.

Voters should be provided with multiple simple and secure means for returning their ballot, especially to limit third-party handling of ballots:

The procedures for processing mail ballots affect the timelines for reporting results and, in some cases, which votes get counted.

To support timely and consistent ballot processing, experts recommend:

  • Election officials begin processing mail votes, like opening envelopes and verifying eligibility, before Election Day to reduce the time after Election Day before reporting results. Timelines vary by state
  • Offer signature verification training and/or signature matching technology, and follow other signature verification best practices, to ensure ballot verification and rejections are handled consistently and fairly.

As many voters are new to mail voting, processes for fixing ballot mistakes are critical for ensuring all eligible votes get counted.

Voters should have clear methods for “curing” or remedying any issues with their ballot to ensure all eligible votes are counted and to enhance voter confidence in mail voting systems.

  • Notify voters in a timely manner if there are issues with their ballot, and in the voter’s preferred language. 
  • Institute a process to allow voters to correct ballots that are missing signatures or have signatures that don’t match the signature on the voter’s registration.

Points of More Substantial Dissent

  • Some recommend that mail ballots be sent to all active voters to increase access to mail voting and reduce administrative burdens in processing ballot requests. Others note that mailing ballots to all active voters may increase the potential for, or at least the perception of the potential, for fraud.
  • Some argue that witness and notary requirements may disenfranchise voters who live alone or otherwise face obstacles to procuring required signatures from third parties or may increase the likelihood of a third party improperly influencing voters’ choice. 
  • Some argue that ID photocopy requirements for ballot requests disenfranchise voters without appropriate ID, the means of securing appropriate ID, or the technology to digitally copy or photograph an ID. Others argue that ID requirements are critical to limit instances of voter and electoral fraud.

 

What voters need to note about voting in-person this year. 

All expert recommendations we’ve seen suggest that in-person voting will remain critical this year. But health and safety concerns precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic have prompted new guidance to support sanitary, physically distanced conditions at polling places, should COVID-19 community spread remain or intensify as a concern as voting begins.

Limited availability of polling places is a critical threat to in-person voting.

The closure or consolidation of polling places during primary elections prompted voter confusion, long lines, and ultimately disenfranchisement. Experts recommend jurisdictions:

  • Identify larger polling places that can better accommodate physical distancing.
  • Where possible and appropriate, increase the overall number of polling places to reduce crowding.
  • Consider alternatives to sites that serve higher-risk groups, like senior care facilities.
  • Offer in-person early voting options at least 5 days (including on the weekend) before Election Day
  • Consider drive-thru or curbside voting options.

Voters should be confident that precautions are in place to protect their health.

Officials should take extra precautions to ensure sanitary conditions at polling places, including by:

  • Providing hand sanitizer or hand-washing stations for voters and poll workers.
  • Frequently disinfecting reusable voting equipment, as in the case of voting machines, consistent with manufacturing guidelines, and other high-touch surfaces. 
  • Where appropriate, providing single-use supplies, as in the case of pens for paper ballots or finger coverings for electronic ballots.
  • Providing cloth masks for all workers and encouraging mask use among voters.

Highlight how your audiences can support local elections by becoming poll workers, in short supply this election year.

Primary elections in the spring and summer exposed a shortage of poll workers in many jurisdictions, especially experienced poll workers, prompting guidance to:

  • Recruit poll workers, especially younger and bilingual workers, well in advance of Election Day.
  • Provide poll workers with adequate training about voting technology, voting requirements, and provisional voting procedures.

Let voters know how and when they can vote via provisional ballot, if needed.

Anticipated confusion around registration status, polling place locations, and greater absentee ballot use has prompted calls for jurisdictions to prepare for substantial increases in provisional ballot use. Experts suggest:

  • Jurisdictions should stock extra provisional envelopes, provisional voter affidavits, and provisional voter notices of rights.
  • States should consider allowing provisional ballots cast by voters registered in the jurisdiction, but cast in the wrong precinct, for races on which the voter is eligible to vote.

Points of More Substantial Dissent

  • Some advocate for longer periods of early voting to reduce crowding.

 

Sources Consulted in this Summary

Alliance for Securing Democracy: The Alliance for Securing Democracy describes itself as “a bipartisan initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, [that] develops comprehensive strategies to deter, defend against, and raise the costs on authoritarian efforts to undermine and interfere in democratic institutions.”

Bipartisan Policy Center: The Bipartisan Policy Center describes itself as “a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively fosters bipartisanship by combining the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security, and opportunity for all Americans.”

Brennan Center: The Brennan Center’s Democracy program describes its focus as bringing “national perspective and expertise in the fight to protect and promote voting rights, campaign finance reform, redistricting integrity, fair courts, and a First Amendment jurisprudence that puts the rights of citizens — not special interests — at the center of our democracy.” 

Brookings Institution: The Brookings Institution describes itself as “a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., [whose] mission is to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.”

Center for Civic Design: The Center for Civic Design describes itself as a nonprofit that brings “civic design skills in research, usability, design, accessibility, and plain language to improve the voting experience, make elections easier to administer, and encourage participation in elections.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Election Assistance Commission: Established through federal legislation, the EAC is an independent, bipartisan commission charged with developing guidance to meet [Help America Vote Act] requirements, adopting voluntary voting system guidelines, and serving as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration.

National Election Defense Coalition: The National Election Defense Coalition describes itself as a “bipartisan movement to secure the nation’s vulnerable voting systems from manipulation and fraud, and to protect every American’s right to have their vote counted.” 

National Task Force on Election Crises: The National Task Force on Election Crises describes itself as a “a diverse, cross-partisan group of more than 40 experts in election law, election administration, national security, cybersecurity, voting rights, civil rights, technology, media, public health, and emergency response” whose mission is “to ensure a free and fair 2020 presidential election by recommending responses to a range of election crises.”

National Vote at Home Institute: The National Vote at Home Institute describes its work as “making sure every American can vote in secure, safe, accessible, and equitable elections by expanding vote-at-home systems in all 50 states.”

R Street: R Street Institute describes itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization whose mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government.” 

Stanford University Law and Policy Lab: The Stanford University Law and Policy Lab describes its work as “counsel[ing] real-world clients in such areas as education, copyright and patent reform, governance and transparency in emerging economies, policing technologies, and energy and the environment”  to “find solutions to some of our most pressing issues.” 

United States Postal Service

Voter Protection Corps: Voter Protection Corps describes its mission as “ensur[ing] that all eligible voters can register, vote, and have their votes counted.”