Federal lawmakers have reached a bipartisan agreement for a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at ameliorating the public health and economic crises wreaked by the coronavirus. But in one critical respect, the deal is a colossal failure: it includes less than one-fifth of what is needed retrofit our voting systems for a nationwide pandemic in time for the November election.
Unless Congress remedies this failure quickly, the coronavirus will add our democracy to its casualties.
Don’t be lulled into complacency by the fact that there are seven months until November. The country needs to start making significant changes to our national election infrastructure now, or else it will be nearly impossible to hold a safe and fair election in the fall. Election officials across the country must have the funding to begin the enormous project before them. A bipartisan group of over 50 state and local election officials toldcongressional leaders this week that they face “unprecedented challenges” in carrying out their responsibility to “protect every voter and every vote.” To ensure a safe and secure election during the pandemic, these essential workers must receive significant financial assistance — immediately.
The necessary changes will vary state by state, but in every jurisdiction they will require an enormous amount of resources. State and local election officials will have to upgrade and expand online voter registration to ensure every American has the option of casting their vote by mail. They will need to expand early voting while modifying in-person voting so that it doesn’t jeopardize the health of voters and poll workers. Fortunately, the stimulus package contemplates each of these adjustments to ensure a safe and fair election this year and provides $400 million to these ends. But that’s only a tiny down payment on preserving our democracy, as we estimate conservatively that it will cost at least $2 billion to get the job done across the more than 8,000 election jurisdictions in the United States. And we are quickly running out of time.
There are three steps in particular that all elections officials need to start taking now.
Expand online registration. In any presidential year, millions of Americans change their registration information or register for the first time—often well before November. Quarantines, closures, and social distancing will make it difficult for voter registration to proceed as usual. The 39 states that already have online registration systems will need to bolster them to accommodate a surge. States that do not have these capabilities will need to set up systems immediately, or take other costly measures to ensure their registration rolls are adequate and up to date. These upgrades must happen now to meet the demand from people who want to vote.
Building a new, secure online registration system will take months. Edgardo Cortes, former Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections (and an election security advisor to the Brennan Center) notes that in 2013 it took his state three months to implement an online registration system, and another four months to upgrade it after a surge of users crashed it in 2016.
Expand mail ballots. To protect public health, every American must have the option to vote by mail. That requires radically overhauling our voting system so that it can process many tens of millions of additional mail ballots — no small task, particularly for the many states where mail voting is not the norm. It will require new systems for accepting and processing ballot applications; ballot tracking software; new ballot drop-off systems; equipment and structures for holding, sorting, processing and counting such ballots; and finding or building secure storage space for all of it. According to print vendors, for example, if full ballot printing orders are not placed by early summer, the ballots will not be ready by November.
Reconfigure polling places. While a dramatic expansion of mail voting is necessary to ensure Americans can vote safely, states will also need to reconfigure polling place voting, especially for those who cannot use or experience problems with mail balloting. To prevent crowding, they will need to expand early voting days and hours, find larger polling locations, and procure sanitation supplies for poll workers and voters. They will also need to recruit a new workforce as backup for the inevitable cancellations by election workers. Washington state, for example, typically hires 500 temporary election workers two months before each election, even without the virus.
Election officials across the country stand ready to make these and other critical adjustments. The key will be ensuring they have the resources to implement them in time. The date of November’s election cannot and will not change.
So far in this country’s history, we have held elections no matter what; a civil war, the Spanish flu, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters haven’t stopped us. We can hold a functional election this November, too, but only if Congress acts quickly. The full $2 billion needed to protect our elections is a drop in the bucket, a mere one-tenth of 1 percent of the stimulus package. The $400 million they allocated is badly needed, but it sells our democracy and the American people short.