June 25, 2020

The Impact of COVID-19 on Federal Elections

Will More States Use Mail-in Voting?

While voting in person currently remains an option in all states, voting by mail is a currently a hot topic.

While voting in person currently remains an option in all states, voting by mail is a currently a hot topic.

With the number of COVID-19 cases rising sharply, more states are starting to look at mail-in and absentee voting as a safe way for eligible voters to cast their ballots in November. This is an understandable alternative as in person voting could force people to be in close proximity to each other during a time of social distancing. To keep readers abreast of current developments, we will review current voting options, including  mail-in and absentee voting; look at what changes Congress is considering; and remind you that the ABA Election Center has resources to help you and others prepare to vote.

Current Voting Options

While voting in person remains an option in all states, voting by mail is currently a hot topic. According to a the PEW Research Center, 71% of voters think people should be able to vote by mail for any reason, and the US Election Assistance Commission recently found that “roughly one out of every four Americans [have] cast a mail ballot” in the last two federal elections. However, state laws differ dramatically around the country, making it very difficult to know your options.

Currently, five states conduct all elections by mail, automatically sending every registered voter a mail-in ballot (CO, HI, OR, UT, and WA). In other states, voters may request to vote by mail through an absentee ballot.  In the majority of states, voters do not need to have a reason to request to vote absentee, while a minority of states like Alabama require absentee ballot requests to provide a valid excuse and a notary-supervised signature. Check the ABA Election Center to see an updated list of your state’s laws on absentee and mail-in voting and, in applicable cases, information on how to request your ballot.

Many states that require an excuse to vote by absentee ballot have yet to determine whether the COVID-19 pandemic will be an acceptable reason to request a mail-in ballot for the November general election, but five states did not allow the pandemic as a reason to vote by mail in their primaries: Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas.

Congressional Proposals:

As states consider how best to conduct elections this fall, legislation has also been introduced in Congress to address a variety of voting issues.  Pending legislative proposals include:

1)      For states with excuse-required absentee ballots

·         Expanding the list of acceptable excuses for receiving a mailed ballot in states that currently require an excuse

·         Implementing no-excuse absentee ballots

·         Preparing for an increase absentee ballots, regardless of expanding availability

2)      For states with early voting

·         Increasing the length of early in-person voting periods

·         Keeping early voting locations open on Election Day

·         Expanding the dates of early voting to include voting on the weekends and expanding hours of operation

3)      For all states

·         Relaxing rules associated with absentee ballot submission (e.g. not requiring notarization)

·         Consolidating polling locations to decrease the amount of poll workers needed

·         Expanding curbside voting, whereby poll workers bring a ballot or ballot-marking device to the voter’s car, which is sometimes used for voters with disabilities

Other legislative actions involving upcoming elections include passage of the CARES Act, Public Law 116-136, which included $400 million in state grants to help prepare for the 2020 election cycle, including increasing the ability to vote by mail, expanding early voting and online registration, and increasing the safety of voting in-person by providing additional voting facilities and more poll workers. Still pending is the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, S. 3529, which would require states to establish contingency plans to enable voters to vote in federal elections during an emergency.

ABA Election Center

States across the country continue to examine how best to protect their citizens and the right of eligible U.S. citizens to vote this year. Voting by mail may become the best alternative, but final decisions are still pending. To monitor updates on individual state voting requirements, please visit the ABA Election Center at ambar.org/electioncenter

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