An Election Postponed? Historic Mail-in Ballots? What to Know About the Coronavirus and Voting

"The way in which the November election is conducted needs to be decided now," one expert says

voting coronavirus
A voter casts their ballot in a Democratic presidential primary election at the Hamilton High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2021. Photo: KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty

When Wisconsin held its most recent elections on April 7, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, questions and concerns swirled.

Would voters be at too much risk, given that the virus is contagious and officials had warned against large groups and going in public?

And would the reluctance of voters and low turnout — as well as polling-place workers who felt uncomfortable — lead to a bigger push for mail-in voting or other options that could limit person-to-person interactions?

On the issue of risk, at least, the numbers have been relatively low: Wisconsin's Department of Health Services told PEOPLE this week that 52 people who participated in the elections have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. (It's not clear that all of those cases traced back to voting, given the patients' other behaviors.)

Larger fears remain as do questions of how voting can or should change in response to the virus' threat.

“The in-person voting infrastructure — whether it’s voters or [polling] places — it’s all falling apart in front of our eyes,” says Amber McReynolds, one of the nation’s leading election experts and the CEO of the nonprofit Vote at Home.

McReynolds is referring to how the social distancing required to slow the virus has upended daily life and kept many people from going in public.

“I’m thinking about it too from stores, social engagements, restaurants — we’re not just going to suddenly flip a switch and everything is going to be back to normal," she says.

Her organization pushes for more widely available mail-in voting options across the country. With the coronavirus pandemic potentially changing American society, McReynolds, the former director of elections in Denver, believes it’s “inevitable” that voting by mail will become the country’s primary way to vote in the future.

There are logistic and financial challenges to making that possible in all 50 states, however, and there is political opposition as well: President Donald Trump has come out against mail votes, though the issue doesn't cleanly divide all Republicans and Democrats.

In the short-term, some speculate about whether the election will be postponed and whether turnout will be as high as it was once expected for the likely face-off between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“One of the things that I’m finding is any expert in this field no longer knows anything,” Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to the elections program at the bipartisan Democracy Fund Voice foundation, which focuses on adjusting the U.S. electoral system to face new challenges.

Patrick, who served as a commissioner on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration under President Barack Obama, tells PEOPLE the pandemic is one of the toughest challenges the American electoral system has ever faced.

“I haven’t seen anything like this,” she says. “We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re hearing conflicting information on whether [the coronavirus] is going to come back in the fall, if it goes away at all, and so the issue is that the way in which the November election is conducted needs to be decided now.”

Here’s what we do know about the coronavirus and the presidential election about six months away.

voting coronavirus

The Election Will Happen on Nov. 3

The coronavirus pandemic has halted much of daily life across the globe — so, some people wonder, why wouldn’t it be able to press pause on the presidential election?

Not so fast.

“There’s no way of canceling it, per se,” Patrick says. “Nov. 3 is the date of it.”

Put simply: It’s constitutional, Patrick says, that the presidential election takes place this year. What's more, the exact date of the election as the first Tuesday in November is set by law. Any change would require the approval of the Republican Senate and Democratic House.

While 15 states did postpone their presidential nominating contests — and New York outright canceled its primary earlier this week because Biden was the only one still in the race — those decisions can’t be equated to a national election, Patrick tells PEOPLE.

“It’s important that we understand in the primary elections, dates can change — states have control over the dates,” Patrick says. “When we look to November, that date is tried and true. It’s going to be Nov. 3. That’s when the election will be held. We can take any question of the date changing in November off the table. End stop, period.”

Even President Trump waved off fear about the election not taking place in November when asked about it earlier this month: “The general election will happen on Nov. 3,” he said on April 3 — exactly seven months out from the election.

voting coronavirus
A voter casts a ballot at a drop box in Maryland in 2020. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

More People May Opt to Vote by Mail (in Historic Numbers)

More than 1.2 million people requested absentee mail-in ballots ahead of the April 7 Wisconsin election, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

By contrast, in the 2018 midterms, the state reported that less than 600,000 people requested mail-in ballots. And in the 2016 presidential election, about 845,000 people requested mail-in absentee ballots.

The state’s dramatic increase earlier this month shows that people are voting differently amid the pandemic, McReynolds says.

“It’s inevitable for voters to ask to vote this way,” she says. “We’re experiencing a pandemic. We’re experiencing an unprecedented situation that requires extraordinary creativity to solve and to prepare elections’ infrastructure and all of that for what will be a huge election in the fall — and also one that is unlike many that most states have experienced.”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama and her organization When We All Vote, together with stars like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, has been speaking out about the importance of voter registration and ensuring ballot access while combating the virus.

Sooner rather than later, voting experts tell PEOPLE, states need to act quickly to make sure they’re ready for the increase in vote-by-mail requests.

“There’s time for states to do it and, frankly, voters are asking for it in record numbers. So voters might push states to record numbers of vote-by-mail without the states doing anything,” McReynolds says. “That’s kind of why I say it’s inevitable.”

But inevitable doesn’t always mean soon. Only five U.S. states conduct their elections by mail-in voting and 16 states require a reason (such as an illness or being out of state for work) for a voter to receive an absentee ballot — and that’s forcing some states to get creative in the way they handle in-person voting come Nov. 3.

In New Hampshire, one of the states that requires a voter to give a valid excuse in order to be absentee, The Washington Post reports that officials are looking into the possibility of "drive-up voting" to help increase voter safety by allowing a person to cast their ballot without leaving their car.

The state also temporarily expanded definitions of its legal language to consider COVID-19 a "disability," which would allow residents to vote by mail in the 2020 election out of concern for voting in-person amid the pandemic.

"If you feel more comfortable voting absentee because of the outbreak, or your inability, or nervousness just about appearing in person to vote, you can vote absentee and obtain an absentee ballot. So we have a very flexible system,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

Reflecting how the conversation around this has quickly changed with the virus, Sununu, a Republican, had vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed residents to vote by mail for any reason.

The loophole in the New Hampshire law's language could provide a template for other states with vote-by-mail restrictions to follow suit. But in order for a state to shift its elections to cater to an increase in mail-in votes, it must pay a high price upfront.

Patrick, the former election official under Obama, estimates each mail-in voting application costs about $1 after considering mailing it to and from a voter and the time it takes to process the information on the application.

In some states, a voter might have to apply for that application again for the November election even though they may have done so for a previous primary.

“So that means Wisconsin spent roughly $1.4 million processing all of those applications,” Patrick says.

The federal government can't tell states how to run their elections, but it can offer financial aid to help bolster their systems. McReynolds says congressional action is needed, and quickly, to ensure states can prepare for November's likely increase in mail-in ballots.

“States have the authority to run their own elections, but I think Congress could provide funding to help states implement more of these provisions and support voters, like pre-paid postage or things like that," McReynolds adds.

She says states’ expenses include the entire bureaucratic process of actually taking in a group of citizens' votes: Paying for machines to count ballots, the cost of making the ballots in the first place, printing them, mailing them to voters and counting them when it’s all said and done.

“There are a lot of lack of resources here in addition to funding,” Patrick says.

If some states aren't able to meet the increased demand as voters habits change, there could be problems.

“The longer it takes for legislatures at the state level to decide what they’re going to do in November is when we get into that time frame of chaos and uncertainty," Patrick says. "That’s where voters can fall through the cracks. And then we can have the integrity of the election called into question because it would appear that it’s being conducted on shifting sand.”

Though the scale may be different, Patrick says those questions aren’t new for election administrators.

“I think there’s always some level of chaos in every election,” she tells PEOPLE. “I often say — this is even before the coronavirus — that every election has a story to tell.”

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Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear as the Wisconsin primary kicks off despite the coronavirus pandemics on April 7, 2020. DEREK R. HENKLE/AFP via Getty

In-Person Voting May Look Different

The story of the 2020 presidential election might best be told in the photos that come afterwards.

Striking images out of the Wisconsin election earlier this month showed some voters wore full-body protective gear, some election officials donned face masks and shields and some voting lines extended blocks from polling place entrances because of social distancing.

“We saw the video footage from Wisconsin of the poll workers in hazmat suits and drivers driving thru for drive-thru voting,” Patrick says. “I think that with the in-person voting experience, there will definitely be the ability to vote in-person for voters that need it. It’s just quite possible that it’s not going to be the predominant way most Americans cast their vote.”

Experts largely expect an increase in mail-in voting options — voting online is an untested security risk, McReynolds says — and they’re expecting the in-person process to look different, too.

With drive-thru voting and curbside pickups on the table in some states, officials will likely use the coming months to explore ways to limit person-to-person contact for those who do still go to their polling place.

Patrick says social distancing might result in the appearance of longer lines and a drop-off in poll workers available to facilitate the vote day-of as well.

“We know that most of our most vulnerable [population] are in fact the same individuals who have been serving voters at the polls, like older retirees,” she says.

When votes happen amid disasters, it simply comes down to who is able to find a way to cast their vote, Patrick says — whether that’s being able to put in the preparation to make vote-by-mail a possibility or being able to get to a polling place.

But if people can find a way, they'll vote.

“What we’ve seen when tragedy has hit on Election Day is that the voters who are able to participate are the ones who participated,” Patrick tells PEOPLE. “When Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic Coast, the voters who were able to vote were the ones that voted. It wasn’t their highest turnout by any means, but those who were able to participate in that election still went on.”

Every state has different rules for registration and how to cast a ballot, while some voters who do end up registered then don’t end up showing up to the polls. The Post reported more than 40 percent of estimated voters didn’t fill out a ballot in the 2016 presidential election — one of the most highly publicized elections in modern history.

Patrick thinks the 2020 election is equally, if not more, anticipated than that. She cites a CNN poll that shows voter enthusiasm has already exceeded previous years.

But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a curveball at election experts trying to predict what will happen come November.

“We have been talking about preparing for record turnout,” Patrick says. “Now we find ourselves in a situation of: How do we make sure that all those individuals who were so enthusiastic about the election and turning out, how do we make sure they have every healthy alternative to do that?”

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