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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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines late last month for safe voting during COVID-19. The agency called for a variety of voting options -- including voting by mail -- and outlined best practices for voters to stay safe at the polls if they do need to vote in person. As we said in a statement, CDC’s guidelines provide a good roadmap for states to follow. Now, it’s on state and local election officials to implement the necessary changes to encourage mail-in voting to the greatest extent possible, but also maintain sufficient in-person locations to prevent crowding.

An article in The Guardian outlines a widespread concern that thousands of mail-in votes are being arbitrarily and wrongly rejected. States have various safeguards in place -- namely signature matching -- to determine whether or not a mail-in ballot is legitimate. If a ballot is flagged as being potentially illegitimate, states need to have a robust “curing” process to contact the voter to confirm they submitted the ballot, and then ultimately count or not count the vote. Based on the stories in the article, it’s clear that this process is inadequate in too many cases.

Finally, with colleges and universities opening on a limited basis or not at all in the fall, on-campus registration drives have had to migrate online. Since COVID-19 hit the United States, voter registration numbers have dipped. In response, groups -- including the Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project (NVP) -- are finding creative ways to register young voters ahead of the November election. Over the summer, NVP will train 3,000 student leaders to mobilize 250,000 students on 200 college campuses in more than 15 states.

Alabama

Similar to the trend we’ve seen in many other states, absentee ballot requests are skyrocketing ahead of the state’s runoff election next week because of COVID-19. Alabama is in the minority of states that require an excuse for its residents to vote absentee, but Gov. Kay Ivey made the right move in deeming the pandemic an acceptable excuse for the runoff. She should do the same for the November election to help ensure voters’ safety.

Iowa

Iowa voters can now request their absentee ballots for the November election. Unfortunately, the state legislature recently passed a law preventing the secretary of state from sending absentee ballot request forms to registered voters, leaving that decision up to individual counties -- many of whom don’t have the money. This unnecessarily makes participating in democracy harder during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maryland

Gov. Larry Hogan called on the state Board of Elections office to keep all polling places and early voting centers open for the November election, and encouraged Marylanders to vote by mail. However, he stopped short of sending absentee ballots to all registered voters, which he did for the state’s primary. Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr said in a statement that while keeping more polling places open was the right thing to do, not mailing ballots to voters was “wrong.” She added, “Mailing applications to vote by mail adds unnecessary bureaucracy for voters and elections staff, who are already stretched thin. It would have been more efficient to mail ballots to voters like the state did in June.”

Massachusetts

Gov. Charlie Baker signed a voting reform bill into law this week that will make voting safer for the September primary and November election. Specifically, the legislation will expand early voting options; automatically send all registered voters a mail ballot application for both the September 1 state primary and the November general election; offer protections for in-person voting; and task the secretary of the commonwealth with establishing an online portal so voters can request a mail ballot online. MASSPIRG Executive Director Janet Domenitz praised the bill’s passage, saying it “will help ensure safe and accessible elections this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Ohio

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued a comprehensive directive this week to county boards of elections, providing specific instructions for how they must run the November election. Notably, LaRose called for a robust curing process in which election offices must contact voters through every means available if they don’t provide the correct absentee voting information. This will help ensure that fewer eligible voters are disenfranchised. The secretary of state has already said he will send every registered Ohio voter an absentee ballot application for November.

South Carolina

Following a lawsuit, the state will now include prepaid postage on every absentee ballot it sends out for the November election. The decision removes a potential hurdle for voters in exercising their right to vote. However, while South Carolina allowed any voter to cast their ballot by mail due to COVID-19 for the primaries, the state has not yet made the same exception for the general election. 

Texas

State poll workers are preparing to hold elections next Tuesday amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. A recent report from TexPIRG Education Fund showed that while all counties were taking some safety precautions in response to the pandemic, there’s a lot of work to be done between now and November to truly ensure safe and accessible voting.

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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.