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 presidential primary elections.
- Three states have postponed specific Congressional elections (Alabama, 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 April 9, 2020:
- Alabama Secretary of State- 93 Days Left to Apply for an Absentee Ballot for Primary Runoff Election
- Alaska Lt. Governor- COVID-19 Important Notice 3/31/20 Update
- Arizona Secretary of State- Secretary Hobbs Supports Authorization for Ballot Initiative Campaigns to Collect Electronic Signatures for the November Election
- Arkansas Secretary of State- Early Voting for General Primary Runoff Election Begins Tuesday, March 24th
- California Secretary of State- Governor Newsom Signs Executive Order Requiring Counties to Mail Every Voter a Ballot for Special Elections in CD-25 and SD-28
- Connecticut Secretary of State- Statement from Secretary of the State Denise Merrill Regarding the Connecticut Presidential Preference Primary
- Delaware Governor- Governor Carney Moves Presidential Primary Date to June 2
- District of Columbia Board of Elections- DCBOE Closing to the Public, Effective Monday, April 6
- 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- Raffensperger Announces Postponement of Primary Election Until June 9
- Idaho Secretary of State- Secretary Lawerence Denney Announces May Primary Changes
- Illinois State Board of Elections- Illinois primary election will go on March 17 as scheduled
- Indiana Election Commission- Indiana Election Commission Adopts New Procedures for June 2 Primary Election
- Iowa Secretary of State- Secretary Pate to Mail Absentee Ballot Request Form to Every Registered Voter
- Kansas Secretary of State- Secretary of State Provides Update Amid COVID-19 Outbreak
- Kentucky Secretary of State- Secretary of State Secures Federal Funds to Cover New Election Costs
- Louisiana Secretary of State- COVID-19 and Elections Update
- Maryland State Board of Elections- Maryland State Board of Elections Statement on April 2020 Elections
- Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth- COVID-19 Elections Updates Page
- Michigan Secretary of State- Election workers needed to uphold democracy during coronavirus crisis
- Minnesota Secretary of State- Secretary Simon Introduces Plan For Elections in a Pandemic
- Mississippi Secretary of State- Governor Tate Reeves Reschedules Special Election for House District 88
- Missouri Secretary of State- Parson, Ashcroft Announce April 7 Municipal Elections Postponed Until June 2 in Response to COVID-19
- Montana Secretary of State- 2020 Election Calendars
- Nebraska Secretary of State- Nebraska Voters with Disabilities Have Several Options
- Nevada Secretary of State- Secretary Cegavske Announces Plan to Conduct the June 9, 2020 Primary Election by All Mail
- New Jersey Governor & Secretary of State- Governor Murphy Announces Postponement of June 2nd Primary Elections until July 7th
- New Mexico Secretary of State- Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver Supports the Collaborative Effort Between New Mexico’s County Clerks and her Office to Conduct an All-Mail 2020 Primary Election
- New York Governor - Amid Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic Governor Cuomo Issues Executive Order Moving New York Presidential Primary Election to June 23
- North Carolina State Board of Elections- State Board, DMV Partner to Expand Online Voter Registration Service
- Ohio Secretary of State- Secretary LaRose Launches Public Service Announcement, Featuring Governor DeWine, Encouraging Ohioans To Vote By Mail
- Oklahoma State Election Board- Statewide Candidate Filing Begins April 8: Mail or Delivery Encouraged - Drive-Through Available
- Oregon Secretary of State- May Primary Moves Forward as Planned
- Pennsylvania Governor- Gov. Wolf Signs COVID-19 Response Bills to Bolster Health Care System, Workers, and Education and Reschedule the Primary Election
- Rhode Island Secretary of State- Secretary Gorbea Announces New Deadlines For Rhode Island Presidential Preference Primary
- South Carolina Election Commission- March Filing Continues, Candidates Asked to File As Soon As Possible
- South Dakota Secretary of State- CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) Election Updates and Information
- Texas Governor- Governor Abbott Postpones Runoff Primary Election In Response To COVID-19
- Vermont Secretary of State- Secretary Condos Issues Directive Allowing Municipal Elections to Be Postponed
- Virginia Department of Elections- Voting Absentee in the Coming Local May Elections is Strongly Encouraged
- Washington Secretary of State- Special Elections Scheduled for April 28
- West Virginia Secretary of State- Warner says Absentee Ballot Application Postcards are now being sent to all 1.2 million registered voters
- Wisconsin Elections Commission- REVISED: Top 10 Things Voters Should Know about the April 7 Spring Election and Presidential Primary - COVID-19
Additional COVID-19 Related Resource Webpages as of April 1, 2020:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP):
- 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.