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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

An op-ed published this week in The Atlantic outlines how states must simultaneously ramp up mail-in voting while ensuring that in-person voting is as safe as possible. For various reasons -- whether a voter is simply unfamiliar with the absentee system or due to personal preference or need -- many people will go to their polling location even if there is a vote-by-mail option. And right now, it looks like many states do not have enough polling place capacity to deal with the demand for in-person voting. 

To fix this for November, states need a lot more money from Congress. States need to hire enough election workers to keep polling places open -- especially new, younger workers who are less vulnerable to the virus. Resources must be put into robust voter education efforts to encourage as many people as possible to vote by mail, and then to clearly communicate how and where people can vote in person. The CARES Act dedicated $400 million to states to administer elections, but that’s well short of the $3.5 billion experts say is needed. 

In related news, another poll shows that most Americans want a vote-by-mail option for the November election. Overall, 72 percent of respondents supported having the opportunity to cast a mail ballot -- including 52 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Independents.

Finally, we’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again until Election Day. With the skyrocketing number of absentee ballots during COVID-19, determining election winners will take time -- and likely won’t happen on election night in November. We’ve seen this play out in recent primaries, including in Kentucky, where final results were announced days or even a week after voting ended. Elected officials, the media and advocacy groups must continue to push this expectation into the mainstream. During a global pandemic, taking time to make sure people can vote safely and the results are accurately counted is an acceptable tradeoff for not immediately knowing who wins.

Colorado

Colorado, one of five vote-by-mail states, held a smooth statewide primary election Tuesday. Of the total ballots cast, 99.8 percent were mailed in or dropped off. While a seemingly-small two percent uptick compared to the presidential primary in March, that means thousands of voters didn’t crowd the polls on Election Day. And despite the pandemic, Colorado set a primary turnout record

Maine

COVID-19 is driving absentee ballot requests way up in Maine. Ahead of the state’s July 14 primary, 137,247 ballots have been requested -- a nearly four-fold increase from the 35,982 requested in 2018.

Massachusetts

A sweeping voting reform bill is expected to pass the Massachusetts Legislature Thursday. The measure, which MASSPIRG is supporting, would send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters for the September primary and November general election; create an online portal for voters to request their absentee ballot; expand early in-person voting; and establish communication efforts to educate voters about the changes.

Michigan

Michigan’s fourth-largest city has decided to fund return postage on residents’ absentee ballots this fall, and set up additional dropbox locations for voters to deposit their ballots. This will make voting by mail easier, and is a positive step forward. Statewide, Michigan is seeing a surge in absentee ballot requests ahead of its August primary, about three-and-a-half times the 2016 total.

Nevada

Because state election officials could not match signatures on ballots, more than 6,700 were not counted in Nevada’s primary election. Signature matching is the most common way to verify mail-in ballots, and safeguards the system from fraud. Moving forward, the state must dedicate time and resources to educating voters about the vote-by-mail system, so fewer errors are made and more legitimate votes are counted.

Tennessee

Despite COVID-19, Tennessee officials are planning to enforce a requirement that first-time voters who register by mail cast their ballots in person. This announcement comes even as a judge recently ruled that all eligible voters could cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic. Clearly, forcing more people to vote in person than necessary is a health risk not worth taking.

Texas

Our Texas affiliate TexPIRG released a report this week showing that while counties are preparing for COVID-19 elections, they are struggling to staff polling locations and need to do more to educate voters. Among other findings, 46 percent of surveyed counties were struggling to staff polling locations, half are buying additional materials or hiring additional staff in response to an increase in absentee requests, and about one-third have health and safety protocols and voting options listed on their websites. The report recommends a set of best practices that every county should follow.

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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.

U.S. PIRG affiliates: Arizona PIRG, CALPIRG, CoPIRG, ConnPIRG, Florida PIRG, Georgia PIRG, Iowa PIRG, Illinois PIRG, MASSPIRG, Maryland PIRG, PIRGIM, MoPIRG, MontPIRG, NCPIRG, NHPIRG, NJPIRG, NMPIRG, Ohio PIRG, OSPIRG, PennPIRG, RIPIRG, TexPIRG, WashPIRG, WISPIRG.

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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.