ISSUE BRIEFING: Election Emergencies & COVID-19

ISSUE BRIEFING: Preparing and Responding to Emergencies Impacting Elections

The Issue: The recent outbreak of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, in the United States has renewed questions about the administration of elections in emergency situations. This document is intended to provide a general overview of state policies on this topic, as well as an update on efforts by election officials to deal with potential issues posed specifically by COVID-19.  

Election Administration in Emergency Situations Overall

Elections in the United States are carried out at the state and local level as part of a decentralized process. As a result, emergency situations impacting election administration are primarily dealt with by the relevant states and local jurisdictions affected.  

Two significant questions arise on the topic:

  1. Do states have laws authorizing officials to change the timing or procedures for an election in an emergency situation?

    a. If an emergency occurs during an election and there is no state law addressing the particular situation, it could potentially be addressed by state legislative action, a court order, or the Governor’s executive authority following an emergency declaration. For example, in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy impacted over a dozen East Coast states prior to the November election, Governors in several states issued executive orders implementing alternative voting procedures for impacted voters and extending absentee voting deadlines.

    While many states do have laws on this topic, these laws vary with regard to the events covered and the scope of authority.[1] 12 states have a law specifically authorizing the Governor or Chief Election Official (or a combination of the two) to suspend, delay, or postpone an election following a declaration by the Governor of a state of emergency. Additionally, a number of states have laws providing state or local election officials with limited authority to implement certain measures in emergency situations, often involving the relocation of polling places or special absentee voting procedures.

  2. Are there election contingency plans already in place?

    a. Yes, many states and local jurisdictions have contingency plans or guidelines for dealing with emergency situations impacting an election. However, given the countless number of potential emergency scenarios that could impact an election, state and local officials are faced with unique challenges when it comes to developing policies and procedures. The appropriate response will depend not only on the type of emergency, but a variety of other factors, including the scope and timing of the emergency, the jurisdictions affected, and the type of election.

    Contingency plans vary among jurisdictions, but often address a number of important considerations, including: dealing with poll worker shortages; communicating with relevant state and local officials; notifying the public of changes impacting the voting process; and establishing alternate polling locations.[2]  

Current COVID-19 Monitoring and Measures by Election Officials

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve in the United States, state election officials are continuously monitoring developments to determine the potential impact on upcoming elections, and are taking steps to help ensure the safety of voters. They are also working to assess and update contingency plans, provide resources and guidance, and update voters on the latest information. You can read the NASS Open Letter outlining efforts overall here.

Further, election officials are partnering with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), state public health departments and other relevant agencies to disseminate information.

Some of the current measures taken by election officials include:

  • 13 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) and one territory (Puerto Rico) have postponed their state-run presidential primary elections.
  • Four states have postponed specific Congressional primary elections (Alabama, Maine, Mississippi and North Carolina).
  • Where applicable, encouraging voters to vote early to avoid crowds or utilize by-mail absentee voting procedures (33 states and Washington D.C. allow voters to vote absentee by-mail without a reason or excuse).
  • Expanded absentee voting eligibility.
  • Extended the mail ballot request deadlines.
  • Mailing absentee ballot requests to all registered voters.
  • Relocating polling places from nursing homes, senior living facilities and other locations where older, high-risk individuals reside.
  • Distributing hand sanitizer, disposable gloves and cleaning wipes to polling place locations.
  • Cleaning polling place locations at regular intervals, including voting machines, ballot marking pens, and other materials.
  • Allowing curbside voting or ballot drop-off at polling places.
  • Recruiting additional poll workers to cover any potential shortages due to illness.
  • Encouraging polling place workers to stay home if they feel sick.
  • Advising voters to seal mail/absentee ballot envelopes with a wet cloth or sponge.

Most Recent State Press Releases Regarding COVID-19 Response as of Sept. 25, 2020:

Additional COVID-19 Related Resource Webpages:

Footnotes:

[1] For additional information on this topic, see National Association of Secretaries of State: State Laws & Practices for the Emergency Management of Elections; National Conference of State Legislatures: Election Emergencies

[2] For example, see California Secretary of State: Procedures and Guidelines for Voting in a State of Emergency or Natural Disaster; Connecticut Secretary of State: Emergency Contingency Model Plan for Elections.

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