At 106, MacCene Grimmett is one of the oldest voters in the state of Utah. Though women didn’t have the right to vote when she was born in 1913, by the time she was of voting age, the 19th Amendment had passed. She has voted in every election since, she told her local Fox affiliate, including the Utah County municipal general election last November. But that time, the centenarian cast her ballot in a novel way: She voted via an app. America is 174 days away from a presidential election. It’s also in the middle of a pandemic that upended normal life, requiring mass shutdowns and social distancing. Those two things don’t exactly jive. Having millions of Americans stand in crowded polling places for hours to cast a ballot on Election Day sounds like the makings of a public health disaster — especially if there is a second surge of COVID-19 infections in the fall, as some experts predict. So now, election officials are looking for ways to hold elections remotely. One option that has been proposed is voting via an app on a smartphone or electronic device, just like Grimmett did last fall (though so far, states seem to only be considering this option for certain groups of voters, such as voters with disabilities).
Experts are sounding alarms about potential security risks as several states consider allowing online voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia are planning to allow overseas military personnel and voters with disabilities to return their ballots electronically for elections this year amid concerns about voting during a pandemic. But federal officials and cybersecurity experts are strongly urging states to stay away from online voting, arguing that it could open up new avenues for interference less than four years after Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) joined a group of federal agencies in condemning the idea of online voting in guidelines first reported by The Guardian last week. The guidelines, sent to states privately, described online voting as “high risk.” “Electronic ballot return, the digital return of a voted ballot by the voter, creates significant security risks to voted ballot integrity, voter privacy, ballot secrecy, and system availability,” the agencies wrote in the guidelines. “Securing the return of voted ballots via the internet while maintaining voter privacy is difficult, if not impossible, at this time.”
Despite a need for alternatives to in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say mobile voting will not be ready for this year’s general election. Nearly a dozen pilot programs for mobile voting apps and internet voting portals have been launched across the U.S. in the last few years. And that was prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which postponed some state and primary elections this spring and caused concern over the safety of potentially crowded polling locations. “It’s pretty obvious that the coronavirus is making it difficult to have our standard election. That’s having an even bigger impact in urban centers where voting lines can already last for hours and be quite packed. And people are looking for other ways we can have the constitutionally mandated vote without putting people at risk,” said Jim Hendler, artificial intelligence researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well as a fellow at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
National: Republicans and Democrats barrel toward collision on voting by mail | Zach Montellaro/Politico
Americans want to be able to vote by mail in November — but Democratic proposals to require it appear to be going nowhere fast in Congress. House Democrats have sought to drastically overhaul the American electoral system in light of the pandemic, arguing dramatic change is needed to allow Americans to vote safely. In a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted last weekend, nearly three-in-five voters nationwide said they either strongly or somewhat support a federal law that would mandate that states “provide mail-in ballots to all voters for elections occurring during the coronavirus pandemic.” Just a quarter of voters either somewhat or strongly oppose the idea, with the remainder not having an opinion. However, support for the idea is split along ideological lines. A supermajority of voters who are registered or lean Democratic — 77 percent — back the idea. Republicans are more divided: 48 percent are opposed and 42 percent in favor. House Democrats have proposed mandating that states send all voters a ballot in the case of emergencies — in their most recent coronavirus relief package, dubbed the HEROES Act, along with other sweeping changes to the elections. The bill would also require universal “no-excuse” absentee voting, online and same-day voter registration and expanded early voting, among other changes.
National: Activists Vow to Protect USPS as States Expand Mail-in Voting | Gabriella Novello/WhoWhatWhy
The latest victim of the attack on voting rights appears to be the United States Postal Service (USPS). As more states make changes to their election laws due to fears about the coronavirus, it remains uncertain how prepared local officials are to offer alternative methods of voting. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced last week that the state would move toward an all-mail election — which means tens of millions of ballots will go through the postal system. Local election officials have raised concerns about the surge in absentee ballots and whether there is enough funding to process every returned ballot. And, in part because the White House has turned funding the postal service into a partisan debate, the cost of mailing every Californian a ballot could amount to a figure that the state has never had to meet before. The challenges may intensify, as the USPS, the agency charged with delivering and returning millions of ballots, is facing unprecedented uncertainty after reports that President Donald Trump will veto any legislation that includes funding for the beleaguered agency. Without federal aid, states may be forced to make difficult budgetary decisions in order to pay for the surge in mail ballots — so voting-rights groups are turning to the courts for help.
California: Long Beach group sues Los Angeles County Registrar over Measure A recount | Anita W. Harris/The Signal Tribune
Local activists the Long Beach Reform Coalition (LBRC) hired Los Angeles election-law specialists Strumwasser & Woocher to file suit in the LA County Superior Court against LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (RR/CC) Dean Logan on Monday, May 11. “Our litigation seeks a writ of mandate and injunctive relief to force Mr. Logan to restart the recount of Long Beach Measure A as a traditional, paper-ballot recount at a reasonable cost,” LBRC said in a May 11 statement. Measure A had passed by a thin margin of 16 votes in the March 3 election, according to results certified by Logan’s office on March 27, with 49,676 voting in favor and 49,660 against. The measure’s passing extends an extra 1% Long Beach sales tax imposed in 2017 beyond its previous sunset date of 2027. The additional revenue bolsters public safety and improve infrastructure, including fire stations, libraries and parks, the City says. Given Measure A’s very narrow approval margin, LBRC requested a recount of the ballots beginning April 8, raising $26,000 from community supporters, according to its website.
Connecticut: State making plans to protect elections from cyber threats, pandemic | Joe Wojtas/The Day
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is scheduled Monday afternoon to announce a plan to secure election systems across the state from cyberattack this fall and prepare polling places to safely operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates outlined the challenges the state faces to ensure a safe and secure election in an op-ed published Monday in The Day. “We’re trying to do all we can do before this election to address the twin challenges of the pandemic and cyber security,” he told The Day on Sunday. Bates said the state will be using more than $15 million in federal funding to ensure outside groups can not interfere with the election and to make polls safe for both voters and workers.
Florida: State election officials provide little direction as election season arrives amid the pandemic | Allison Ross/Tampa Bay Times
As local election officials across Florida scramble to prepare for one of the most divisive presidential races in U.S. history, they say state officials are providing little support to help them brace for the added challenge of protecting voters in a global pandemic. A chief concern among county elections officials is whether the state will take $20 million in federal funds awarded to protect the 2020 elections in the state as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that became law in March. On Wednesday, the Florida Supervisors of Elections, a bipartisan group that represents the state’s 67 county-level elections offices, urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to accept the money. “I…want to express my concern that Florida is lagging behind nearly every other state in securing (federal) funding for elections,” Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer wrote for the group on Wednesday. “While we wait, the goods and services we need are becoming scarce.”
Florida: Supervisors want DeSantis to take CARES Act money | Alex Daugherty and David Smiley/Miami Herald
Florida is one of just four states that have yet to accept federal funds to prepare for elections during the coronavirus pandemic, and the state’s election supervisors are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to take the money now. The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, a bipartisan group that represents county-level election supervisors across the state, sent a letter to DeSantis on Wednesday urging him to take $20 million in funds awarded to Florida as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that became law in March. The letter is a follow-up to one the group sent a month ago, asking DeSantis to help supervisors prepare for the coming August and November elections by granting them some flexibility under the law — a request that has gone unanswered. “I … want to express my concern that Florida is lagging behind nearly every other state in securing CARES Act funding for elections,” Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer wrote Wednesday. “While we wait, the goods and services we need are becoming scarce.”
Illinois: Lawmakers Debate Vote-By-Mail Ballots for 2020 Election Amidst Pandemic | Katie Kim and Lisa Capitanini/NBC Chicago
With less than six months to go until the general election and with concerns over social distancing at polling places, some Illinois leaders are pushing to significantly expand the use of vote-by-mail ballots. State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Lake Forest, plans to introduce a bill that would allow the state to mail a ballot to every registered voter in Illinois. Under the provisions of the bill, select polling places would remain open for early voting and on Election Day for those who don’t feel comfortable casting ballots by mail. “I’ve heard of a lot of interest in having a vote by mail program so that people do feel comfortable and safe on Election Day,” said. Sen. Morrison. Current law allows Illinoisans to request a vote-by-mail ballot as early as Aug. 5. Sen. Morrison said her bill would only apply to the 2020 Election as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic, so voters don’t have to choose between their right to vote and their health and to protect poll workers.
Maryland: About 1 in 10 ballots went undelivered to Baltimore City voters during 7th Congressional District special election | Emily Opilo/Baltimore Sun
Nearly 1 in 10 ballots could not be delivered to Baltimore City voters during the special election in April, raising concerns for the June 2 primary, which is also being conducted by mail. The data, released by the Maryland Board of Elections late Tuesday, shows that 20,367 of the more than 230,500 ballots sent to Baltimore City voters could not be delivered before the April 28 special election. An additional 4,355 ballots were undeliverable to Baltimore County voters, while 3,886 were not delivered to Howard County voters — about 3% of all ballots in those two jurisdictions. The figures are being calculated as state election officials take stock of the lessons learned from Maryland’s first election held primarily by mail. The special election, which was held to choose a successor for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, was conducted by mail by order of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in response to the new coronavirus pandemic. The rapidly spreading virus has killed nearly 1,700 Marylanders and sickened more than 34,000 others, forcing the closure of businesses and a stay-at-home order that has been in place for Maryland residents since March. More than 480,000 ballots were mailed for the special election, which included only voters in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. The district includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. Voters were strongly encouraged to return the ballots via mail using postage-paid envelopes or by placing them in drop boxes offered in each of the three jurisdictions in the district.
A group of older Minnesota voters is suing the secretary of state over concerns that the state’s absentee voting rules could put their vote — and their health — at risk this year. Part of a broader movement to change absentee rules across at least five states, the Minnesota challenge argues that many older voters who are self-quarantining to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus won’t be able to get the required witness signatures on their mail-in ballots. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Ramsey County District Court by the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans Educational Fund, looks to stop the state from enforcing that requirement and also to adopt a postmark deadline on mail-in ballots. State law requires absentee ballots to be hand-delivered to county elections offices by 3 p.m. on Election Day or received by mail by 8 p.m. in order to be counted. Anticipating a dramatic uptick in mail voting because of an expected spike this fall in COVID-19 cases, the plaintiffs worry a cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service may not be able to deliver such ballots in time. Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office declined to comment on the litigation.
Missouri: State moving to allow mail-in voting during pandemic | Kurt Erickson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri could offer “no excuse” mail-in ballots to all voters this year in an effort to ward off the spread of the coronavirus. The proposal, adopted by the House on Wednesday, would work like an absentee ballot, but it would not require voters to state a reason why they can’t go to the polls on Election Day. It would only be available in the August and November statewide elections. Voters would still have to get the ballot envelope notarized before it could be submitted. Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, who sponsored the provision, said voters would be able to request a mail-in ballot in person or by mail. The proposed change, which still needs Senate approval, comes after county clerks and voting rights groups have said people shouldn’t have to risk going to polling places during a global pandemic.
Nebraska: Thanks to vote-by-mail option, more Nebraskans than ever cast their primary ballots | Martha Stoddard/Omaha World-Herald
Only 1 in 7 voters actually showed up at the polls for Tuesday’s primary, but total participation blew past all previous records. Secretary of State Bob Evnen reported Wednesday that more than 471,000 Nebraskans cast ballots in this year’s primary election. That’s well over the previous record of 413,015 voters, set in the 1972 primary. Of those, about 60,000 to 65,000 people voted in person, he said. About 80% or so took advantage of Nebraska’s early voting option to cast their ballots by mail. The remainder live in sparsely populated areas where all voting is by mail. “Nebraska voters refused to allow the terrible pandemic in our midst to stop them from exercising their right to vote, which is so precious to us all,” Evnen said. Voting by mail shot up this year after state leaders encouraged voters to use that option to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Toward that end, county election officials or the Secretary of State’s office sent early voting request forms to all registered voters.
Philadelphia’s election commissioners voted Wednesday to reduce polling places by nearly 80% in the state’s June 2 primary election as local officials try to adapt to problems finding polling locations and recruiting poll workers amid fears of the coronavirus. The plan, which still requires state approval, would reduce the number of polling places in the nation’s sixth-most populous city from 831 to 190 locations. Election commissioners cited the difficulty of finding polling workers and the need to find sites that can safely accommodate the disabled and voters practicing social distancing. A state law that passed in March delayed the primary election from April 28 to June 2 and allowed counties to consolidate polling places in the primary election by up to 60%, without court approval. Several counties, including Allegheny County, the state’s second-most populous after Philadelphia, have contacted the state about reducing their polling locations by more than 60%, according to state officials. Allegheny County voted last month to reduce its polling places from more than 1,300 to 200 to 300 locations, or by almost 80% at least.
South Carolina: State expands absentee voting for June primaries due to coronavirus pandemic | Jamie Lovegrove/The Post and Courier
All South Carolina voters will be able to request a mail-in absentee ballot for the upcoming June 9 primaries due to the coronavirus pandemic after state lawmakers approved a short-term bill Tuesday that added the ongoing state of emergency as a legal justification. The unexpected move came just hours after a state Supreme Court hearing over the same issue, as South Carolina Democrats argued that the state’s limited absentee voting law would force many voters to risk their health in order to vote next month. Under South Carolina law, voters need to cite one of several reasons for voting absentee, such as physical disabilities, having to go to work or being out of town on election day. The list does not include fears about contracting a virus during a pandemic. But under the change passed Tuesday, South Carolinians can now vote absentee if a state of emergency is in effect within 46 days of the election. The June 9 primaries are 28 days away and any runoff elections would be on June 23, which is 42 days away. The change will expire on July 1, meaning it will only apply to the primaries. Some Democratic lawmakers argued that they should extend the measure for the November general election, but Republican leaders said they could consider that later in the year if the state of emergency is still in effect.
Tennessee: Welcome to the Machine: Fight Over Shelby County Voting System Raises Issues of Integrity and Nepotism | Jackson Baker/Memphis Flyer
Are the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County — troubled with decades of problematic and even botched election results — really about to acquire a new, improved means of expressing their will in the forthcoming August and November election rounds? That question may be answered this week, as the Shelby County Commission decides whether to accept or overrule the judgment last week of Election Administrator Linda Phillips and the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) — apparently in favor of ballot-marking devices marketed by the ES&S Company, a monolith of the election-machine industry. The name of the chosen manufacturer was not explicitly revealed last week — “Company 1,” was how it was called in discussion — but several references by Phillips to the “thermal paper” uniquely employed by ES&S for production of machine receipts, were something of a giveaway. The Shelby County Commission, which has the responsibility of paying for the machines (or not), had voted twice previously in favor of hand-marked ballots instead, on several grounds, including cost, transparency, and invulnerability to ballot-hacking. And an aroused contingent of local activists, abetted by a network of nationally known election adepts, is prepared to insist on that choice.
Texas: Attorney General asks state Supreme Court to step into fight over voting by mail | Alexa Ura/The Texas Tribune
In a bit of judicial leapfrog, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on his interpretation of how voters can qualify for absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. Various lawsuits are pending over whether eligibility for mail-in ballots can be expanded to voters who risk contracting the virus by voting in person. Paxton believes it can’t, and he asked the state’s highest civil court Wednesday to issue a relatively rare writ of mandamus preventing local election officials from doing so. In a motion filed Wednesday, the Republican attorney general asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in some of the biggest, largely Democratic counties in the state to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, arguing the court must step in quickly because those county officials intend to apply an “incorrect reading” of state law. Federal and state courts are considering legal challenges to the state’s rules for voting by mail that seek to extend eligibility to voters who lack immunity to the new coronavirus. Primary runoff elections are set for July, and new ground rules could also come into play for the November general election.
Wisconsin: Nine lessons from Wisconsin’s chaotic spring election | Susan Benkelman/American Press Institute
Wisconsin’s election on April 7 was a test of how a democracy functions in a pandemic. Democracy held on, but at a price. The election offered a window into the logistical challenges of trying to forge ahead with voting at a time of social distancing, and it was a closely watched battleground in the larger war over voting rights. It also holds lessons for journalists, who in Wisconsin had to report on plans that were changing by the hour, then consider how much risk they were willing to take to their own health and safety to cover the voting. Two legal battles in state and federal court pitted Democratic Gov. Tony Evers against Republican legislators. In both cases, the governor lost, requiring the state to hold the vote as scheduled on April 7 and to count the absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day. These battles were fought in the last few days and hours before the election, creating uncertainty and chaos both for people who wanted to vote by absentee ballot and for the local elections officials who were trying to keep up with the on-again-off-again scheduling.
The Colorado secretary of state announced in September last year that the U.S. state would remove QR codes from ballots to prevent possible election meddling by outsiders. “I am proud that Colorado continues to lead the nation in election cybersecurity,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in a press release on Sept. 16. One of her duties is ensuring the integrity of elections. “Voters should have the utmost confidence that their vote will count. Removing QR codes from ballots will enable voters to see for themselves that their ballots are correct and helps guard against cyber meddling,” Griswold went on to say. Once QR code-less ballots are introduced, votes will be tabulated using marked ovals on the ballot. In South Korea, QR codes have been at the center of a controversy following the April 15 National Assembly elections in which 300 lawmakers were elected and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) clinched a landslide victory. The two-dimensional bar codes were used twice over the course of the election; once on ballots for early and postal voting and again on voter-completed tabulation sheets printed from counting machines. About a month has passed since the elections but some people, still scratching their heads over the results, have raised suspicions about the tabulation.