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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

One of the largest problems in moving most of our elections to vote by mail is the mail itself. Already underfunded, recent changes to how the U.S. Postal Service operates has created a huge mail backlog. If not fixed, this could force voters to choose between voting in person and jeopardizing their health or voting by mail and running the risk of their ballots being invalidated because they didn’t arrive on time.

While Congress has dithered and failed to pass a bill to help states run safe, secure elections, many have turned to the courts for remedies. But the Supreme Court has declined the opportunity to hear cases related to the states administration of elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. With that in mind, states will need to ensure voter safety and a successful election in November without federal guidance. 

Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee ranked lowest in a report examining which states were best prepared to help voters safely participate in November's elections, according to the nonpartisan think tank the RAND Corporation. Having a variety of voting options and the flexibility to implement them in the face of the changing public health landscape was the key factor in the rankings.

As we have noted, it is unlikely the results of this fall’s elections will be known on the evening of Nov. 3. This will be a change and how the public reacts will depend on how the story is told. A column this week in the New York Times outlined some key things for the media to consider when reporting election results this year. 

California

Voting by mail does not work for all voters.  So, while California will be mailing all voters ballots this fall, they are also planning on having in-person voting options available. However, like many states, California is struggling to find both enough poll workers and safe polling locations

Michigan

Recognizing the coronavirus pandemic’s challenges, local clerks and elected officials worked for months to secure the staff and equipment necessary to run safe and secure elections on Tuesday. While vote counting took longer than usual, a byproduct of the record number of ballots submitted by mail, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called the primary a success.

Minnesota

A Minnesotan judge issued a court order allowing voters to forgo having a witness signature on their mail-in ballots for Novemeber’s election. This decision is an extension of a rule previously put in place for next week’s primary election. The witness requirement would have undermined the purpose of using absentee voting to limit potential exposure to COVID-19.

Nevada

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill Monday that would send every registered voter in Nevada a ballot in the mail. The bill grants the governor the power to order Nevada’s secretary of state to change the procedures surrounding elections during a state of emergency. While the bill expands mail-in voting, it also includes provisions for some in-person polling sites.

Ohio

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose reaffirmed mail-in voting as one of multiple voting options available to Ohioans. While vote by mail is considered safe, there are still concerns about in-person voting in Ohio. More than 200 doctors and healthcare professionals signed a letter calling for basic safety recommendations at polling stations, including a 6-foot social distancing requirement and mandating masks for voters and poll workers. 

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar announced that the government will pay for the cost of postage for voters who submit ballots by mail in November's general election. This decision should make it easier for people to return their ballots via USPS. Seventeen states already cover postage for mail-in ballots, including Arizona, Maryland, Missouri, California, Minnesota and Virginia.

Tennessee

The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision and ruled that fear of COVID-19 is not a valid reason for any voter to request an absentee ballot this November. Voters with underlying conditions or those who are caretakers for individuals with underlying conditions, however, will be able to vote by mail. Tennessee is one of 15 states that require voters to provide an excuse in order to receive an absentee ballot.  

Virginia

Voters in Virginia will be able to track their ballots mailed through USPS. Already in use in other states, ballot tracking is a simple technology that can help voters feel confident that their ballot will be counted.

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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 social change.