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:
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. 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.
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.
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:
- Alabama Secretary of State- Secretary Merrill Encourages the Checking of Absentee Ballot Statuses Online
- Alaska Lt. Governor- COVID-19 Information for Voters and Election Officials
- Arizona Secretary of State- Secretary of State’s Office issues guidance to ensure communities most affected by pandemic can exercise their fundamental right to vote
- Arkansas Secretary of State- Early Voting for General Primary Runoff Election Begins Tuesday, March 24th
- California Secretary of State- California Secretary of State Launches New Statewide Ads for Vote Safe California
- Colorado Secretary of State- Coloradans Turning Out in Record Numbers to Serve as Election Judges
- Connecticut Secretary of State- Secretary of State Denise Merrill Teams Up with NASS, NASED, the CBA and the ABA to Promote Poll Worker Recruitment for the 2020 General Election
- Delaware Dept. of Elections- State Primary Election Tuesday, September 15
- District of Columbia Board of Elections- DC Board of Elections Kicks Off “Vote Safe DC” Campaign
- Florida Secretary of State- Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee Announces Business Annual Report Filing Deadline Extension and Changes to Candidate Petition and Qualifying Processes
- Georgia Secretary of State- Secretary Raffensperger Partners with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber Federation to Recruit Poll Workers
- Hawaii Office of Elections- Returning Your Voted Ballot, 2020 Primary Election
- Idaho Secretary of State- Official 2020 Primary Canvass Conducted
- Illinois State Board of Elections- Illinois surpasses 1 million requests for vote-by-mail ballots
- Indiana Secretary of State- Secretary Lawson Recognizes National Voter Registration Day
- Iowa Secretary of State- Secretary Pate partners with U.S. Homeland Security to provide election readiness exercises for counties
- Kansas Secretary of State- State Board of Canvassers to Meet
- Kentucky Secretary of State- Secretary of State Presents Update on General Election
- Louisiana Secretary of State- Secretary of State Provides Information on Absentee Ballots
- Maine Governor and Secretary of State- Governor Mills Signs Executive Order to Facilitate Voting, Protect Health of Voters & Election Officials Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
- Maryland State Board of Elections- The Maryland State Board of Elections Recognizes National Voter Registration Day
- Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth- COVID-19 Elections Updates Page
- Michigan Secretary of State- Absentee ballots mailed today, early voting begins in Michigan
- Minnesota Secretary of State- Secretary Simon Announces Start of Absentee and Early Voting for 2020 General Election
- Mississippi Secretary of State- September 22nd Special Elections Update - Early Afternoon Update
- Missouri Secretary of State- Ashcroft Urges Missourians to Get Registered, Verify Registration on National Voter Registration Day
- Montana Secretary of State- 2020 Election Montana Voter Information
- Nebraska Secretary of State- Ballot Certified for the 2020 General Election
- Nevada Secretary of State- The Secretary of State Elections Division Announces New Service to Track and Receive Notifications Regarding Mail Ballots
- New Hampshire Secretary of State- Voting During COVID-19 State of Emergency
- New Jersey Secretary of State- Governor Murphy and Secretary Way Announce "New Jersey Votes" Education Campaign Ahead of General Election
- New Mexico Secretary of State- Public Health Emergency Order Clarifying that Polling Places Shall be Open as Required in the Election Code and Imposing Certain Social Distancing Restrictions on Polling Places
- New York Board of Elections- The New York State Board of Elections Creates One-Stop Absentee Ballot Web Portal
- North Carolina State Board of Elections- State Board Updates Cure Process to Ensure More Lawful Votes Count
- Ohio Secretary of State- With Six Weeks To Go, 44,000 Ohioans Have Signed Up To Be Poll Workers
- Oklahoma State Election Board- State Election Board Officials Caution Voters About Mailing From OKVOTE Organization
- Oregon Secretary of State- Preparing for the November 3, 2020 General Election
- Pennsylvania Secretary of State- High Schools Compete In Voter Registration Challenge
- Rhode Island Secretary of State- Statement by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea on Elections Postcards sent by United States Postal Service
- South Carolina Election Commission- Witness Signature Now Required on Absentee By Mail Ballots for 2020 General Election
- South Dakota Secretary of State- Absentee Voting for the November 3rd General Election Begins September 18th
- Tennessee Secretary of State- Absentee By-mail Voters Can Track Their Ballot Online
- Texas Secretary of State- Secretary Hughs Marks National Voter Registration Day, Urges All Eligible Texans To Register To Vote By October 5th
- Vermont Secretary of State- Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos Issues Statement on National Voter Registration Day
- Virginia Dept. of Elections- In-Person Voting Starts September 18
- Washington Secretary of State- National Voter Registration Day: Secretary of State Kim Wyman encourages all eligible Washingtonians to join the voter rolls
- West Virginia Secretary of State- Warner announces highest increase of daily voter registration transactions in the 2020 election cycle
- Wisconsin Elections Commission- Wisconsin Mails Voting Information to Registered Voters
- Wyoming Secretary of State- Wyoming Certifies Primary Election Results After Record Voter Turnout
Additional COVID-19 Related Resource Webpages:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA):
- Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP):
- National Association of State Election Directors (NASED):
- National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL):
- National Governors Association (NGA):
- U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC):
 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
 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.