Election officials around the country are rushing to make last-minute changes to address coronavirus concerns – seeking to avoid panic, staff shortages and delays that could impose additional hurdles for primary voters on election day.Many of the changes have to do with protecting older people, the demographic most at risk for having serious complications from the virus. In Ohio Frank LaRose, the secretary of state, ordered all polling stations located in senior centers and nursing homes to be moved. The change is expected to affect 128 of the state’s polling locations for its 17 March primary, and local officials are identifying alternative sites. Election officials in Chicago, also holding its primary next week, announced the city was relocating polling stations out of nursing homes. It’s not just voters, however, who are at risk. In 2016, about 56% of poll workers across the country were over 61 years old, according to the US Election Assistance Commission, which collected data from about half of the workers that year. Tammy Patrick, a former election official in Arizona, said administrators should consider hiring youth poll workers and overstaff to prepare for cancellations.
The county clerk in Travis county, Texas, said election day last week got off to a “rocky start” with long lines at the polls, in part because poll workers didn’t show up for work in an attempt to avoid exposure to coronavirus. Reductions in public transit and dial-a-ride services could also create additional obstacles to people getting to the polls, said Patrick.
Election officials are urging voters to take their own preventive measures, encouraging voters to cast their ballots early and by mail, providing hand sanitizer at the polls, and sanitizing voting machines and other equipment. Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state, asked voters to use a wet sponge or cloth to seal their mail-in ballots instead of licking them. Election workers are also using gloves to handle the ballots, she told Axios.
In places where there are new changes going into effect, officials are scrambling to notify people they may have to cast a ballot at a new location. In Franklin county, Ohio, the county board of elections plans to send mailers to 21,000 voters notifying them of the 16 new polling locations, and post signage at the closed locations with directions to the new ones.
That might not be enough, said Mike Brickner, the director of the Ohio chapter of All Voting is Local, an advocacy group. “Obviously this is pretty short notice and voters may not know that their polling location has moved and may not get that postcard in the mail, or see it, or read it,” he said. He urged election officials to go the “extra mile” and said his group plans to text voters affected by the change.
Anticipating a last-minute influx of absentee ballot requests, Ohio’s LaRose also instructed local boards of election to allow people to drop off their absentee ballots in person on election day until 7.30pm, when the polls close.
Coronavirus concerns, and the adapted measures, compound the existing challenges of the 2020 election, including unprecedented turnout, ageing voting equipment and cybersecurity threats. “Most administrators already don’t have sufficient resources (people and money). The uncertainty makes it even harder,” said Trey Grayson, the former secretary of state of Kentucky.
With three months of primary elections taking place across the country, election administrators are trying to reallocate resources at the last minute, Grayson said. “You could have too few opportunities for early voting, or not enough folks lined up to count mail ballots, or too many people at the polls on election day. Or the reverse if this thing doesn’t have as much of an impact,” he said. “Regardless, planning is hard.”
Forty-five states have provisions that allow for changes to elections in case of emergency, though the procedures vary widely from state to state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In eight states – Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – the governor has statutory power to delay elections.
But Grayson said the emergency laws mainly dealt with things like natural disasters and terrorism, not disease.
“We want our elections to be resilient and able to handle challenges, but this is a tough one,” he said.