Are American elections pandemic-proof? A state-by-state scorecard

A woman wearing a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) casts her ballot in the primary election in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 2, 2020.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Editor's note:

This post was updated on July 15. The full state-by-state scorecard is available here.

More than four months have passed since the coronavirus hit the United States, changing almost every aspect of how we live. As we write, the virus shows no sign of slowing down, as hot spots move from the northeast to the south and southwest. Public health experts believe that a variety of conditions could induce a second wave of COVID-19 cases—just in time for the November election.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our democracy faced—and continues to face—serious challenges when it comes to voting, such as voter suppression, non-voting, and lack of trust in institutions. During this year’s primaries many of these problems have surfaced again and the pandemic has only exacerbated them. The pandemic will also speed up changes that were already in the making—changes that will pose huge challenges to those who administer elections. With a consequential national election just four months away and important primary elections before then, our voting systems must be pandemic-proof to ensure our confidence in the electoral process.

So how should we vote in a pandemic when the safest thing to do is stay home? The simple answer: Vote from home. On that front there is good news and bad news. The good news is that more and more Americans have already been voting from home. FiveThirtyEight studied how voters have voted over the past three decades. In 1992, nearly all voters voted on Election Day; by 2018, the last national election, only 62% of voters voted on Election Day. This change is due to the adoption of universal vote-by-mail systems in several states, changes in many more states that allowed for “no-excuse” absentee balloting, and the increased adoption of early voting.[1]

Even without the pandemic the number of voters voting absentee in the 2020 presidential election would have increased given this trend. But during the pandemic, we are seeing an exponential increase in the demand to vote from home—with some states seeing as many as 10 times the number of absentee ballot requests for primaries as before. In fact, in some jurisdictions, executive branch officials are urging people to request absentee ballots and avoid the voting booth. We undertook a survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in order to assess their readiness to vote from home during a pandemic, and we assigned letter grades to those states which made it easiest.

Seven states received an A grade.[2] In these states, a voter does not need to request an absentee ballot—an actual ballot is mailed to every registered voter. These states are referred to as “universal vote-by-mail” states and include blue states such as California, purple states such as Colorado, and red states such as Utah. Except for California, these are states that have used universal vote-by-mail successfully in past major elections. California was moving in the direction of universal vote-by-mail prior to the pandemic and the seriousness of the pandemic sped up that process.[3] We expect that more states will move in this direction in the following months and we will update the scores accordingly.

The remaining states allow for absentee voting but there are huge variations in the ease of applying for, receiving, and submitting a valid absentee ballot. We scored the remaining states on twelve dimensions and translated the scores into letter grades.

Three of those dimensions deal with how easy it is to get an absentee ballot. The most points were awarded for those states that automatically sent absentee ballot applications to all voters, as states like Michigan have committed to doing. As November approaches, we expect that more states will adopt this strategy. States were also given points for adopting what are called “no-excuse” absentee ballot plans. This trend appeared even before the pandemic. In recent  years, several states stopped requiring an excuse, such as being out of the state or having an illness, in order to get an absentee ballot. In a nod to the virus, some states that require excuses have added concerns over COVID-19 as a valid excuse for requesting an absentee ballot, effectively opening absentee balloting to the entire population of those states.

We also graded states on the ease of completing an absentee ballot. Most people view absentee balloting as a simple process of filling in a few bubbles and sealing an envelope. However, that ease of experience is not universal. For example, three states go so far as to require that absentee ballots be notarized or witnessed by two people—extra steps that are difficult to do in any situation, let alone a pandemic.

There is also variation among states on when an absentee ballot must be received in order to be counted. Some states require that mail ballots be received by close of voting on Election Day, with a few even requiring that voters postmark ballots prior to Election Day itself.[5] All other states count absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day but received after, some with a window of less than five days and some that accept them for longer. Given the unprecedented volume of mail ballots we are likely to see in November, we gave more credit to states that allow a longer time for ballots to arrive. And in the 2020 primaries so far, some states have already relaxed the time allowed for an absentee ballot to be returned in order to accommodate the huge increase in requests.

We gave points to states that had multiple channels for submitting their ballots. Given that problems with the mail are to be expected, we gave more points to states that allowed for alternate ways of submitting their absentee ballots such as in special drop-off boxes or in person at a polling place or county office.

Finally, we gave points for some special circumstances. States with multiple channels for requesting an absentee ballot, such as by email, phone or in-person, got an extra point. And states that required two or more witnesses or a notary received negative points.

When the points were added up and translated into grades, the states fell into the following categories:


Pandemic Vote-by-Mail Map_7-15

Voting from home is obviously the safest way to vote during a pandemic. As states are changing their voting rules and election administration laws in real time, during a campaign season, it requires state election bureaucracies to be nimble and responsive to rapid changes. Not surprisingly, the election infrastructure in many states has already come under pressure as a result.

The press has recounted many of these challenges. For instance, in many states absentee ballots did not arrive in time for people to vote and send them in. This caused some voters to go to the polls to vote. This added to long lines and long wait times at the polls—especially in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Georgia. In other places, poll workers failed to show up or showed up late to open up polling places, further increasing the wait time for frustrated voters. Although voting officials in elections so far worked hard to make polling places safe, requiring masks and putting tape on the floors to keep voters six feet apart, it was clear that they did not account for the number of absentee ballots that went astray.

We initially hoped to build a scorecard that judged states not only on their progress towards vote-from-home but on their progress in making voting in person safe and easy. However, the problems that impeded in-person voting in the primaries are difficult to measure in a standardized way across states. We do not have reliable data on procurement and staffing of the polls, and it will not be available until close to Election Day itself, if at all. For instance, in some states authorities can change the number of available polling places up to 4 days before the election.

But what we can say is that for November, reforms that make it easier to vote from home should be coupled with reforms that keep as many in-person polling places as possible open and safe. In this year’s primaries some jurisdictions shuttered a huge percentage of in-person polling sites, leading to massive voter confusion and long lines. In many cases, the polling station shuttering happened in cities with significant Black populations like Atlanta, Louisville, Milwaukee, and Savannah. This is an alarming trend and election officials need to diligently prepare for a range of voting preferences.

According to a recent CNN report, “Experts say black voters are less likely to have had experience with absentee voting processes and are less likely to trust the government institutions to handle their votes in the mail.” As has become clear from the primary elections held so far, the transition problems as we move from in-person voting to voting from home have a disproportionate effect on communities of color. Recent scandals such as the Republican voter fraud scandal in the 2018 race in the 9th congressional district of North Carolina, which effectively destroyed absentee ballot requests among Democratic voters and especially voters of color, reinforces that skepticism among Black voters.

The integrity of in-person voting in November requires recruiting and training new poll workers —probably younger people than traditional poll workers who are generally retirement age and thus more vulnerable to the virus. It means keeping as many polling places open as possible and letting people know that they are open to reduce wait times. And it means aggressive publicity to educate the public about how they can vote from home and all other changes to state and local voting processes.

Voting from home has its problems but when combined with safe and accessible in-person voting, it should enable us to have a safe election in November. The United States has held elections during other trying times and it can do so this year as well, even if we are still in the middle of a stubborn and dangerous health crisis.

[1] Oregon adopted the first universal vote-by-mail ballot election system in 1998.

[2] California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

[3] In 2016 the Voter’s Choice Act allowed counties to opt in and mail ballots to all registered voters. Five counties adopted the system for the 2018 elections and more were planning to do so for 2020 when the pandemic struck. In May of 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom of California issued an executive order declaring that in 2020 California will send ballots to every registered voter. The order faced legal challenges and in June the governor passed a bill through the legislature enshrining a universal mail-in ballot system for California, thus strengthening the governor’s legal position.

[4] Alabama, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

[5] Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and North Dakota.