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 July 2, 2020:
- Alabama Secretary of State- 9 Days Left to Apply for An Absentee Ballot for Primary Runoff Election
- Alaska Lt. Governor- We Need You
- Arizona Secretary of State- Governor Ducey, Secretary Hobbs Announce $9 Million Investment For Safe Elections Plan
- Arkansas Secretary of State- Early Voting for General Primary Runoff Election Begins Tuesday, March 24th
- California Secretary of State - Governor Newsom Signs Legislation to Fortify California's November 3, 2020 General Election for the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Colorado Secretary of State- Colorado’s Record-Breaking State Primary Proves Vote-by-Mail Model is Successful
- Connecticut Secretary of State- Statement in Response to Lawsuit Challenging Connecticut’s Restrictions on Absentee Balloting
- Delaware Dept. of Elections- Deadline for Voter Registration for the 2020 Presidential Primary Election is Saturday, June 13, 2020
- District of Columbia Board of Elections- June 2 Primary Election Recap
- 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 Praises Fulton County/Atlanta Hawks Voting Partnership
- 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- New party and independent candidates will have a July 20 deadline to file nominating petitions under a revised court order
- Indiana Secretary of State- Secretary Lawson reminds Hoosiers to vote on June 2nd
- Iowa Secretary of State- Iowa surpasses 500,000 voters in June primary, shattering turnout records
- Kansas Secretary of State- Schwab Issues Filing Deadline Reminder
- Kentucky Secretary of State- Kentucky Voter Registration Uptick in May
- Louisiana Secretary of State- Early Voting Begins June 20 for Presidential Preference Primary and Municipal Primary
- Maine Secretary of State- Secretary Dunlap releases absentee voting animation, video message for July 14 primary
- Maryland State Board of Elections- Board of Elections Approves Two New In-Person Voting Locations for Baltimore Voters
- Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth- COVID-19 Elections Updates Page
- Michigan Secretary of State- Absentee ballot requests up by 1 million from 2016
- Minnesota Secretary of State- Secretary Simon Asks Minnesotans to Answer the Call to Become Poll Workers for 2020 Elections
- Mississippi Secretary of State- Election Day Reminders for June 23 Elections
- Missouri Secretary of State- Ashcroft Reminds Missouri Voters of Municipal Election, Applauds Local Election Authorities for Preparation
- Montana Secretary of State- 2020 Primary Election Montana Voter Information
- Nebraska Secretary of State- 2020 Nebraska Primary Election Recap Op-ed Secretary of State
- Nevada Secretary of State- 2020 Primary Election Facts vs. Myths
- New Hampshire Secretary of State - Voting During the COVID-19 State of Emergency
- New Jersey Secretary of State- July 7, 2020 Primary Election Information
- 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- Voting Options and Deadlines for the New York State June 23, 2020 Primary Election
- North Carolina State Board of Elections- Election Officials Searching for Democracy Heroes, Launch New Portal
- Ohio Secretary of State- Ohio Controlling Board Approves LaRose Plan To Send Every Registered Voter An Absentee Ballot Request Form
- Oklahoma State Election Board- State Election Board Offers Tips, Reminders for Oklahoma Voters
- Oregon Secretary of State - News from the Secretary of State
- Pennsylvania Secretary of State- Secretary of State Reports Smooth Election Amid Historic Circumstances
- Rhode Island Secretary of State- Elections Task Force to Review Presidential Primary and Prepare for Fall Elections
- South Carolina Election Commission- Introducing scVOTES.gov
- South Dakota Secretary of State- South Dakota’s Primary Election Results
- Tennessee Secretary of State- Secretary Hargett Launches Statewide Poll Official Recruitment Campaign for August Election
- Texas Secretary of State- Secretary Hughs Encourages Texans To Vote Early, Observe Recommended Health Protocols, And Make Preparations To Cast A Ballot In July 14th Elections
- Vermont Secretary of State- Secretary of State Jim Condos and Secretary of State Kim Wyman Opinion: Our Democracy Depends on a Reliable Postal Service
- Virginia Dept. of Elections- Virginia Department of Elections Announces Cares Act Funding
- Washington Secretary of State- Secretary of State Forwards Cases of Potential Double- and Cross-State Voting to County Election Officials
- West Virginia Secretary of State- On This Independence Day, Let's Protect Our Troops’ Right to Vote
- Wisconsin Elections Commission - State of Wisconsin Mails Postcards to Eligible but Unregistered Residents
- Wyoming Secretary of State - Secretary of State Edward Buchanan Announces Start of 2020 Election Cycle
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.