States Struggle to Get Vote-by-Mail Plans Ready in Time


Many states delayed their primaries to give election officials more time to prepare, but quickly overhauling procedures comes with real challenges. What will it all mean for the November elections?

In prepping for the August primary election, officials with the Connecticut Secretary of State’s office decided they will mail every registered voter in the state an application for an absentee ballot. The move is meant to reduce in-person voting during the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s still unclear how many residents will be allowed to vote by mail.

Connecticut is one of several states that requires voters to provide an explanation—which must meet certain requirements laid out in state law—for why they cannot vote in person on Election Day in order to receive an absentee ballot. In the era of coronavirus, the Secretary of State’s office interprets that law as allowing voters with pre-existing conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to a bad case of Covid-19 eligible to request a ballot, but not necessarily those voters who are just afraid of contracting the contagious disease while at the polls. 

The issue illustrates just one of the difficulties states are addressing in the summer primaries, which are providing many election officials with a test run on how to protect voter access during the pandemic as they ready themselves for the November presidential elections. 

Elections officials and voter advocates have pushed for broader use of mail voting as a way to balance voter access and public health concerns. With no clear understanding of whether the coronavirus outbreak will subside by November, elections experts say all states should be developing plans to expand vote-by-mail capacity for the presidential elections. 

“The primary is giving us a trial run on how it’s going to work,” said Brian Miller, the executive director of Nonprofit Vote.

In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill does not have the authority to change who can vote absentee, but she has encouraged the governor and state lawmakers to change election statutes before the August 11 primary so that no excuse is needed for voters to cast absentee ballots in the summer or fall elections. 

While Gov. Ned Lamont, who like Merrill is a Democrat, has voiced support for loosening the restrictions, it’s unclear whether he will take emergency action to do so before the deadline to approve and begin printing absentee ballots on May 26. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

The entity with the authority to change election procedures varies from state to state, which can make it difficult to quickly change gears, said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute.

“Local election officials want to be prepared and want to get ready,” McReynolds said. “Their hands are often tied by the political forces and partisan processes that exist within their states.”

Regardless of whether or not Connecticut changes the requirements, state elections officials are preparing for a surge in absentee voting.

“We know that where this is an option, it is a popular option,” said Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for the secretary. “I think that whether the law changes or not, we have to be prepared for a large number of people to vote by absentee ballot because they are scared.”

Expanding Mail Voting

State election laws are all over the map when it comes to voting by mail. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington were all-mail states before the coronavirus pandemic, meaning they automatically sent every registered voter a ballot. Many more are now looking to ramp up vote-by-mail as a way to protect both voters and poll workers from infection. To do so, some states have made it easier to request absentee ballots—for instance, by allowing voters to do so online rather than through the mail or by loosening restrictions that limit the reasons why voters can request absentee ballots, Miller said. 

Others are foregoing the absentee request forms and directly mailing ballots to all registered voters. Nevada is in the process of mailing all registered voters a ballot for their June 9 primary. California has taken steps to address the November presidential elections, with officials saying they will automatically mail every voter an absentee ballot for the fall.  

In Montana, many residents already embrace vote-by-mail with 74% voting absentee in the 2018 midterm elections. Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive that allows counties to further expand the option in the state’s June 2 primary. He granted counties the authority to keep polling places closed on Election Day and all 56 counties intend to do so. 

Unlike in previous elections, the state will now cover the cost of postage for all returned ballots. While no polling places will be open on Election Day in Montana, counties will be required to accommodate some form of early, in-person voting and voters can leave ballots in election drop boxes. The order does not apply to the November election. 

Partisan Disagreement

Not everyone embraces the vote-by-mail concept however. Some conservative think tanks argue that increasing absentee voting can lead to voting fraud, although there is little evidence of this happening. 

President Trump has also lashed out over reports that states intend to expand absentee voting options, on Wednesday even threatening to withhold money from two states that sent out either absentee ballot applications or ballots. Republican lawmakers in Congress, meanwhile, appear unlikely to provide more federal funding to help states cover the costs to expand vote-by-mail options. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, ordered election officials to postpone the state’s May 26 primary runoff elections to July 14 rather than allow more residents to use mail ballots. The state’s Democratic party sued and a federal judge ruled Tuesday that all Texas voters should be eligible to vote by mail to avoid contracting Covid-19. 

By and large, proponents of mail voting say states should seek to avoid the complications seen in Wisconsin, which went ahead with in-person primary elections in April. The state required residents to request absentee ballots, but many residents never received them. That approach is problematic because it takes significantly more time for elections offices to process applications and mail out ballots, McReynolds said. “They basically made everyone register to vote again,” she said. 

State lawmakers fought in court up to the last minute to delay the elections and allow absentee voting to be extended, but polls ultimately opened on Election Day and at some locations people had to wait for hours to cast ballots in person. At least 61 people who later fell ill said they had been at the polls on Election Day, though it is unclear if they may have contracted coronavirus while voting or through other interactions. 

Making the Switch

For states that do make changes to enable more voters to cast ballots by mail, whether preparing for primaries or the general election, officials will likely need new mail sorting and ballot counting equipment to handle the sudden influx, Miller said. Centralizing the collection and sorting of ballots could be a way to address the challenge of dealing with the big increase in ballots, he said.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan postponed the state’s primary until June 2 to allow the State Board of Elections more time to devise a comprehensive plan to address public health concerns. As a result, the state’s primary election will be conducted primarily through mail for the first time.

The state election’s board has taken charge of mailing out ballots across the state. That will help centralize the process and take some of the burden off of local elections offices, said McReynolds, whose organization has provided expertise to Maryland officials.

Hogan, a Republican, said the state will evaluate how well the election runs and consider a mail-in ballot for the November general election.

“We’re going to see how this thing goes in June and then we have several months to be able to prepare for that November election,” he told ABC News. “Hopefully it will work out well. We want to make sure every single vote is counted, and we want to make sure that our citizens are safe while they’re exercising that right to vote.”

Maryland’s plan hasn’t been without problems, however, as some ballots were mailed out late. That’s left some people concerned voters will not have enough time to vote and return their ballots in time. On Tuesday, lawmakers requested the state make more ballot drop boxes and in-person voting centers available to accommodate people who receive delayed ballots.