Across the nation, medical professionals and first responders are mobilizing to combat and control the coronavirus, leveraging whatever materials and resources they have available to create an environment where patients have the best chance of survival. It’s been a heroic effort, with caregivers using ingenuity and sheer determination to do the very best to save lives despite limited supplies and an uncertain threat. The fight against COVID-19 is a war, and they are on the battlefield every day.
Although the stakes are nowhere near as high, that’s the same spirit America’s election officials are going to need to administer the 2020 general election.
Accept the Situation:
It’s Difficult, but not Impossible
It’s already painfully obvious that 2020 will not be a typical election year; state after state has postponed or radically altered the primary election calendar as the risk to voters and election personnel grows. And yet we know that elections must proceed—despite speculation, the November vote will happen unless Congress changes the date, which is highly unlikely—which means election officials face the difficult challenge of moving ahead without putting voters and poll workers at unnecessary risk.
In many states and localities, this will mean an increased reliance on vote-by-mail and other alternatives to traditional Election Day polling places like vote centers and ballot drop boxes. But in the vast majority of communities that don’t already have these voting methods, the transition is going to be difficult, requiring access to big things like dedicated machinery to open and tabulate mail ballots, little things like envelopes for all those ballots, and important things like plans for covering postage and managing millions of pieces of paper. In many states, this effort will also require legal or procedure changes as states retool their election process to cope with the new normal.
Resources are Limited:
Start Where You Can
As usual, election officials will have limited resources for their efforts. Congress made $400 million available to all states in S. 3548, the CARES Act coronavirus stimulus, funding that is badly needed but is only about one-fifth of what many experts say is necessary to do the job. Efforts are underway on Capitol Hill to increase that federal commitment, but in the current environment, election officials likely can’t plan for anything more than they’ve currently received.
The good news, as always, is that America’s election community is extraordinarily resourceful and quite accustomed to making do with less-than-perfect conditions in their service of voters and democracy in general. Administrators from states and localities who have conducted elections by mail are sharing their knowledge while also making ballots available in person at vote centers or elsewhere to people who cannot, or prefer not to, vote by mail. The coronavirus pandemic will test the limits of that resourcefulness and teamwork, but there is no reason to believe election officials aren’t up to the challenge.
This is only Temporary
That said, it will be important to manage expectations. Given the speed, depth, and breadth of the likely alterations to the election process, we should not expect the changes to be seamless or smooth; election offices in many places will be upending years of planning and shifting to a new voting model on the fly. Purchasing rules, legal requirements, and other usually invisible constraints will have to be altered or suspended, requiring flexibility from policymakers and others in state and local governments. The process will be messy and frustrating, and it will demand patience from everyone involved.
We should also not expect the changes to be permanent beyond 2020. Although there are many compelling arguments in favor of a full transition to vote-by-mail and vote centers, it does involve policy decisions on which policymakers and advocates can validly disagree. For that reason, election officials across the nation should be given breathing room to adapt their processes without being expected to do so in a way that applies to elections beyond 2020.
In short, America’s election officials should be encouraged (and allowed) to approach the 2020 general election with the same spirit shown by medical professionals and first responders, by recognizing that we are at war with the coronavirus and using whatever resources and expertise are available to win that fight. This commitment to “battlefield surgery,” while it may not be perfect or permanent, is the nation’s best chance to confront the challenges facing the nation’s 2020 voting process. There’s no doubt that the election community is up to the task—we just need to give them room and resources to make it work.
I will continue to share election administration insights as shifts occur due to COVID-19. Sign up for more perspective pieces from FMG Experts here and reach out to our team if you’re in need of additional resources.
Director of Elections Research