An Update on Holding Elections During the Pandemic

April 7, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has serious implications for the way we hold elections. Already states have postponed spring primaries, and towns in Massachusetts are postponing their local elections. The League is working at both the national and state levels to assure that elections will continue to be held and will be accessible to all voters, including a major push to increase opportunities to vote by mail. We are adamant that the fall elections, both the Sept. 1 state primary and the Nov. 3 general election, take place, with safeguards to assure full voter participation, which will require that planning begin now.

Here is a summary of what is happening on elections and voting at all levels of government; these actions will be changing and ongoing and we will keep you updated.

At the federal level:

LWVUS has a webpage, COVID Guidance for Leagues, that is continuously being updated. Of particular interest on the voting front is a blog post: 10 Things Elections Officials Can Do to Safeguard Our Elections This Spring, Summer, and Fall with ways local Leagues can work with local election officials now and going forward. Please take a look. The Centers for Disease Control has also issued guidance for conducting elections.

LWVUS, in cooperation with other national voting rights organizations, is urging Congress to include additional funding for elections in upcoming COVID-19 relief bills. Funds will be needed to increase the capacity of states to handle more mail-in ballots, to make mail-in ballots accessible to all, and to beef up U.S. Postal Service operations to handle increased voting by mail. Here is an LWVUS press release on the funding level for elections in the March bill. While Massachusetts Senators and Representatives support such efforts, please email Senators Warren and Markey and your own Congressperson to indicate your support of action to protect our elections so they can let their colleagues know these bills are important.

At the state level:

LWVMA has added a COVID-19 toolkit for local Leagues to its website and will continue to update it.

With our partners in the Election Modernization Coalition, including Common Cause, the ACLU, MassVOTE, MassPIRG, Progressive Massachusetts, and the Voter Table, we worked with the legislature to pass a bill, S.2608, in late March to deal with the immediate issues around spring elections, both the four special elections to fill vacant seats in the legislature, and the annual town elections for town officials and school committee members. The law allows elections to be postponed until June 30, current officials to continue in their offices until a successor is elected, a voter registration deadline of 10 days instead of 20 before a rescheduled election, extension of absentee ballot eligibility to all those taking precautions related to COVID-19, and expansion of early voting by mail for municipal elections. This law sunsets on June 30, so the legislature will need to act further to address the fall elections.

We have had questions whether towns can hold local elections entirely by mail or can mail a ballot to every registered voter. Our election laws, still in effect, require in-person voting during elections. And both the emergency voting law and regular law require that voters who want to vote by mail, either by early voting or absentee ballot, have to file an application requesting a ballot, so simply mailing ballots to all registered voters is not an option.

The Coalition realizes that the legislature must first deal with immediate emergency needs arising from the COVID-19 crisis. But we urge the legislature to take up necessary election reforms sooner rather than later. The Coalition is asking legislators to assume that the virus’ impact will still be felt this fall and to take immediate steps to implement the necessary reforms, prepare election officials and polling places for these changes, purchase new equipment, and educate voters. Those steps should include:

  • continuing to allow voters with COVID-19 concerns to apply for an absentee ballot (A change to no-excuse absentee voting in Massachusetts requires a Constitutional amendment, which is a several-years process and cannot happen quickly enough for this crisis, so the immediate solution is to include precautions being taken for COVID-19 under the physical disability reason for an absentee ballot.)
  • expand vote by mail opportunities, including covering the postage for requesting and returning ballots
  • expand deadlines to ensure early access to ballots and to ensure that delayed mail does not result in disenfranchisement by counting ballots postmarked by Election Day rather than received by Election Day
  • print mailed ballots in numerous languages.

Election officials will need the authority for central tabulation of mailed ballots and high-speed scanners to handle those ballots.

We also recognize that in-person voting must also be available in elections, so legislation should address the need for expanded early voting hours to lessen the number of people at polls at any one time, and ways to safeguard both voters and election workers at the polls.

Finally, voter registration opportunities will be affected, particularly if the RMV offices are closed. Online voter registration should be publicized heavily. And now is the time for the legislature to pass Election Day registration, because many of our citizens affected by this crisis may be moving, and changing their voter registration won’t be high on their priority list. Voters need to be able to register or to update their registration on Election Day.

At the local level:

Town election officials have received detailed notice from the Secretary of State’s office on scheduling and conducting postponed municipal elections. Local Leagues can contact their election officials and offer to help in any way necessary. See the LWVUS guidance on 10 Things Elections Officials Can Do to Safeguard Our Elections This Spring, Summer, and Fall. Leagues can also publicize the rescheduled election date, how to get absentee ballots and early voting by mail ballots, and precautions that will be in place if people want to vote in person. Spread the word with letters to the editor and on social media.

Contact your state legislators and urge them to take all necessary steps to protect our fall elections and assure that all voters will have a chance to vote, including by expanding voting by mail, making needed changes for in-person voting, and passing Election Day registration. The time to act on these changes is now.

This and other information about League operations during the COVID-19 crisis is in a COVID-19 Toolkit on the LWVMA website.