States Prepare for the General Election During the Pandemic, Adjust Voting Procedures

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

While primaries are still happening across the country until August, many states are starting to consider new changes to the voting process for the general election. Typically, voting in the U.S. is done in person, in a designated facility with booths to turn in ballots. However, with the spread of COVID-19, this traditional set-up is being reconsidered, as it poses a high-risk for contraction of the virus.

Booths and ballots come into contact with multiple people, and cramming voters into a small facility is no longer possible. Only a quarter of voters in the 2016 election voted by mail or absentee ballot — the majority use in-person voting to cast their ballots. States are now faced with the challenge of mitigating virus spread while also making voting accessible enough for all.

Because mailed ballots are also handled by election workers, the CDC provides suggestions to help protect the workers, and many states are implementing these guidelines. These suggestions include providing disinfectant and gloves, as well as holding ballots for at least three hours before handling.

Most state governors have used their executive powers to take action for the primaries and may continue to do so. Maryland governor Larry Hogan’s proclamation postponed the primaries to a later date and required them to be held entirely by mail. Other governors have left it up to their state parties. According to the Kansas Democratic Party (KDP), the party canceled in-person voting and held the original primary date, opting to mail ballots to those registered as Democrats living in Kansas.

The KDP mailed over 400,000 ballots in April, and didn’t require any additional pre-registration. The ballots were pre-paid and stamped ahead of time to avoid any costs that could affect voters. An online forum for those who needed assistance was also created. The 2020 primary ended up setting a participation record for the party, with the turnout being 34.7% of registered Democrats in Kansas. The KDP Executive Director Ben Meers attributed this increase to the accessibility and convenience of the mailed ballots. This seems to be a trend across the board, with many states with similar primary voting systems saying that the convenience of this year’s ballots have increased turnout.

In contrast, states like Wisconsin decided to hold primaries at their original place and time. Many people protested this decision, citing the fact that the largest and most dangerous polling places are located in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s Black community lives. Because the center was located in a heavily populated city, it was more dangerous to vote, as more people came in contact with each other. This angered many of the citizens, saying that it disenfranchised voters, especially voters of color.

In addition, lines were longer than anticipated, since there was a shortage of poll workers because of the coronavirus risk. Social distancing policies increased the waiting time, which put pressure on those with time constraints on or fear of prolonged stay in public spaces. After the election, the Wisconsin Department of Health was able to connect 52 new cases back to people who voted or worked at polls. The study warned of a larger potential relationship and that more cases could have been the result of the decision to keep in-person voting. Even with the attempts of preventing spread through heightened hygiene awareness, social distancing, and shields, COVID-19 was still able to spread to many people in a short time frame.

States like New York have released documents explaining how in-person voting in the November general election may work. New York plans to provide poll workers with PPE and outlines guidelines voters must follow when entering a polling place. In response to the shortage of volunteer poll workers, states like Kentucky are using the National Guard in primaries and possibly the general election. This will allow the generally older and therefore more vulnerable poll workers to stay home.

In the Kentucky primaries, the National Guardsmen served out of uniform and only those who volunteered, worked the polls. Anticipation of the Kentucky election received a lot of media attention after the Wisconsin primaries, and, in response, the state allowed voters to choose their voting method and followed stricter guidelines for in-person voting. Consequently, the way Kentucky handled their primaries is being praised by voting rights activists and is being used as a model by many states.

Currently, seventeen states do not offer absentee voting without an excuse, a potential problem for those who request mail-in ballots. One man in Wisconsin was denied an absentee ballot, despite having the necessary paperwork completed three days before the deadline. He decided to not cast his vote in the primaries so that he could stay home and reduce his risk.

The general election date has not been postponed, and many states are started to ramp up preparations for this date. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf signed a bill that required the Pennsylvania Department of State to publish a report on the primary election so that necessary changes to the voting-by-mail process can be changed before the general election.

While there is currently a lack of a solid plan for the general election, states are using the primaries as a valuable learning tool. The feedback for voting-by-mail systems is generally positive across various states, while using original voting systems has proven to be an issue for many.

Through Teen Lenses: If you are of age to vote in the upcoming general election, has your plan to vote changed in response to COVID?

“My plans haven’t changed because Maryland has an Absentee Voting program that will allow me to vote from home without risking my safety/health. If I were forced to vote at an actual booth I may have changed my plans, but since my ballot still is mailed to me (or online) I’m not worried.”  Neal Machado, 18, Rising Freshman at University of Maryland, Rockville, MD
“I’m going to school in Pennsylvania in the Fall so I’m gonna try to vote there in the general election. My plan has not changed with voting and COVID other than doing it through the mail instead of in person.”  Anonymous, 18, MD
“No! I’m still planning on voting. I feel like it’s my civic duty to vote. I feel comfortable with the fact that I don’t have to vote in-person since there are absentee ballots and more. But, some of my friends aren’t voting since there are other ways they can be civically engaged. Our government, ultimately, was the most unprepared in response to COVID and protecting the nation which is why the US has one of highest amounts of cases per day. Out state is doing poorly as well with having one of the highest cases out of all the 50 states. Maybe if there was more federal emphasis, we could be doing better, although public health issues are a reserved state power (10th amendment). But, there’s always a loophole. I know tons of people are deciding to not vote for any candidate in the upcoming election because they like none of them, and respectfully, I don’t either. But, people do acknowledge that if we want change we do need a change in presidency. Some are also planning on voting for Kanye and other third parties, but a vote for Kanye is a vote for Trump. If people really want the president out of the office to help with coronavirus issues, like me, I encourage them to vote for Biden. No vote at all and a vote for third parties like Kanye will keep Trump winning. I feel like I need to vote to help this situation and keep Trump out of office. A lot of people feel this way. It’s a small step for change. Like history taught me, every vote matters.  Safa Khan, 18, Rising Freshman at the University of Virginia, Vestavia Hills, AL