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This week in COVID-19 voting news

What it means for access to the ballot box during the pandemic
For Immediate Release

National

In just six weeks, voting for the 2020 presidential election will begin. And while over 75 percent of voters will have the option to vote from the safety of their home, we are far from being prepared to hold fully safe and secure elections. At a Senate hearing this week on the country’s readiness for November, lawmakers heard that states need more money -- both to meet the high demand for mail-in ballots and to open enough safe, socially-distant polling places to avoid crowding. 

If the safety of voters wasn’t enough reason for Congress to act, a bipartisan group of former prominent national security leaders is warning decision makers that without additional funding, our election security is not only threatened by COVID-19, but also from foreign interference. 

In an effort to more efficiently process the massive increase in mail-in ballots, states are debating whether or not to change laws that prevent them from processing absentee ballots before Election Day. So long as preliminary results aren’t made public before polls close on November 3, states should consider making this move.

COVID-19 is disrupting fall plans for students across the country. To help make sure the pandemic doesn’t also disrupt their plans for voting, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced the National Emergency Student Vote Act, requiring colleges and universities to send information about registering to vote and voting by mail. 

Finally, you might be thinking that it could have been easier for states to adapt their elections to COVID-19 if only there were a central, federal agency to coordinate and help elections officials. Well, there is -- it’s called the Election Assistance Commission. But after years of underfunding and neglect, EAC was not prepared for this moment. You can read here how this federal agency designed to help states administer elections has been unable to help state officials in this time of crisis.

Alabama

Alabama’s secretary of state extended a rule allowing Alabamians to use COVID-19 as a reason to apply for an absentee ballot for November’s general elections. Over 40,000 voters applied for absentee ballots for Alabama’s runoff election last week. 

Nevada 

Nevada will return to a traditional, in-person election format for November’s elections, due to lack of funds. Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske said that her office would need an additional $4-5 million in order to implement a full vote-by-mail election, but they are equipped to handle a surge in absentee ballot requests. Nevadans can request an absentee ballot for any reason.

North Carolina

In response to COVID-19, North Carolina passed a law in June to make voting by mail more accessible and in-person voting safer. Importantly, it created an online portal where voters could request their absentee ballot. However, voting rights activists are calling for more funding and additional changes, including increased public education about election changes and hiring additional poll workers to maintain sufficient in-person polling options.

Washington, D.C.

The District of Columbia’s Board of Elections approved a plan to send every registered voter an absentee ballot ahead of the general election. Additionally, the city will also double the amount of polling locations for early and Election Day voting, and set up drop boxes where voters can drop off their ballots. These are steps every state and locality should consider taking, if they haven’t already, to ensure the safest possible voting system.

Wisconsin

A bipartisan group of current and former elected officials in Wisconsin are pushing for an expansion of absentee voting -- namely through increased voter education -- and for measures to make in-person voting safer. Nearly 1 million people voted by mail in April’s state Supreme Court election, and experts believe even more will vote by mail in November. 

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U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.

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U.S. PIRG is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to getting things done.