States Begin Prep for Mail-In Voting in Presidential Election

By: - March 23, 2020 12:00 am

Wearing gloves, a King County elections worker collects ballots from a drop box in the Washington state primary earlier this month. Many states have considered expanding vote-by-mail options in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak. John Froschauer/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

States have begun reshaping election policies to expand access to mail-in voting.

Election officials in states with restrictive absentee requirements are looking for ways to allow as many voters as possible to use absentee ballots, a safer alternative to in-person voting in a global pandemic. If this crisis continues into November, however, some experts warn that a pivot to voting by mail could strain state resources and disenfranchise certain voters if not handled properly.

U.S. elections have been in flux since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio all delayed their Democratic primaries. New York officials also are considering delaying that state’s April 28 primary.

But many states are taking their responses to COVID-19 further.

Voting by mail looks different in each state. While most states allow all voters to cast a mail-in ballot, 17 states restrict absentee voting to people who have disabilities, who are ill or who would be out of town on Election Day.

Several states have begun lifting restrictions on mail-in voting, opening the process to people who may have fears of exposure to the highly infectious virus.

Among them is Alabama, which postponed until July 14 its March 31 runoff in the Republican election for U.S. Senate. The July date would give officials time to process absentee ballots, and it’s the last day the state could hold an election without interrupting the November general election, according to Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill.

“That spreads out the work for them,” Merrill said in an interview, “enabling the voters more time to have their voices heard and votes counted.”

Alabama is one of the 17 with restrictions on absentee voting, normally requiring a voter be absent from their home county on Election Day, be ill or have a physical disability, have a job during voting hours or be a caregiver for a family member. But like his peers around the country, Merrill, a Republican, chose to allow any eligible voter in the state to vote absentee because of virus concerns.

Elections officials have made similar accommodations in Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, allowing all voters concerned about COVID-19 to request an absentee ballot.

“In light of the situation, we want to make sure this election is as free, fair and safe for all voters as we can,” said Jennifer Gardner, deputy press secretary of West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican. “We understand the health risk here, and we’re taking that very seriously.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.