The U.S. Presidential Elections: Change in Voting Environment Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemics

Merieleen Engipti
July 26th, 2020


Image Courtesy: Rutgers-Camden News Now

As President Donald Trump’s tenure draws to an end in January 2021, the U.S. sets to conduct its presidential election this November as per the constitution.  The U.S. Presidential elections are one of the fascinating races globally that take every four years, and presidential aspirants campaign more than a year ahead to seek party’s nominee by winning the state Caucasus and preliminaries and gaining the support of the party delegates. However, the health, economic and social crises have overturned the table for the media houses to balance between the crises and election issues in general. Amidst the pandemic, the U.S. has to change the manner elections are typically conducted, as lockdown and social distancing has become an established norm. 

Traditionally, the campaign of big arenas crowds gathering is replaced by a basement campaign in social media sites.  Debates are taking place in an empty arena, with listeners at the other end of the screen. States are expanding the vote by mail infrastructure to avoid crowd gathering in polling booths. Several states of the U.S. are changing their voting rules to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemics, due to which the U.S. suffered heavy losses. 

Vote by Mail in the U.S. States

Traditionally, voting occurs in-person by visiting the polling booth; however, due to the pandemic, a shift has been taking place with states mailing-in ballots in state primaries. The concept of voting by mail nevertheless has existed since the civil war days, where soldiers would mail their ballot on or before the election day. Voting by mail in the U.S. can be done either through the absentee ballot or mail-in ballots, also known as no-excuse absentee ballots. For an absentee ballot, registered voters may request ballots but need to state why they cannot be present at their polling station location on election day, such as being out of town on election day, in military service or being over 65 years old. On the other hand, mail-in ballots do not require any reason to request ballots to be mailed and, therefore, loosely known as no excuse ballots. Before the pandemics, 34 states and Washington D.C. have allowed all registered voters to vote by mail without an excuse, and 16 states must state reasons. Out of 34 no-excuse mail-in ballots states, five states- Hawaii, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Washington have conducted their elections entirely by mail by sending ballots to all registered voters to make it more convenient to vote. 

Changing Rules amidst Raising Concerns

Due to the pandemic, some states are considering changing their voting rules to make it convenient for eligible voters to cast absentee ballots. In the recent primaries, there has been an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots, creating delays in some states, and some operated smoothly. Observers state a record turnout for primaries due to the expediency of mail-in ballots at the time of social distancing, validating earlier claims that mail-in ballots increase voter turnout in elections. Washington is at the forefront of the vote by mail, as states in the U.S. have a different set of voting rules. In Washington, counting begins ten days ahead to the election day to get a head start in several time-consuming steps of authenticity verification. Early mail ballot accounts for half the overall vote in Washington. Raising concern over vote counting, with an increased percentage of mail-in ballots coming in, led states to rewrite laws that allow them to begin processing mail-in ballots ahead of election day. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are among states considering legislation that would allow election officials to get a head start on processing absentee ballots.

Another issue with mail-in ballots is the arrival of the ballot past the deadline. Around 1% of the mail-in ballots were rejected in the state primaries for late arrival, as it is typical for mails postmarked on or near election day to arrive days later. The Democrats and the Republicans are on the other end of the strand with regards to laws that require mail-in ballots to be received by or before the Election day. Democrats and vote advocacy groups have filed suits in at least ten states challenging this law. They made an appeal to judges to allow ballots to be accepted as long as they are postmarked by election day, due to the difficulties voters might encounter due to pandemic and delayed mail delivery. Meanwhile, the Republican party and election integrity groups are fighting back. In their defence, extending the deadline will undermine public confidence in the results, which could be delayed for weeks. They are also altogether not in favour of mailing ballots to all registered voters, claims it would undermine election integrity and increase fraud.

Challenges and Human Errors

Mail balloting is generally popular with voters as it saves time and effort in standing in queues to cast ballots. It will improve voter participation during the pandemic, as in the case of New York during the primaries. It can also be a luxury for eligible but non-voters, voting from home having their mail ballots delivered. However, it is accompanied by several challenges. First, as the volume of mail-in ballot increases, ballot rejection, especially for first-time voters, can be a crucial issue in this election. Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observed that first time users of mail-in ballots, especially young, Black and Latino voters, are most likely to have their ballots rejected because of errors. Second, scaling up of vote by mail infrastructure like Washington may take time; therefore, vote by mail can only complement already established in-person infrastructure. Lastly, we cannot ignore human errors. These include failing to sign the ballot, absence of witness where required, and inconsistency in signatures in the voter registration, ballot signature and the outer envelope. Research shows that signature verification requirements in the mail-in ballots may harm voters whose first language is not English, voters of colour, voters with physical abilities, and ageing or young voters. This November election will be a testing time for the U.S. electoral system, however, shared experiences from states equipped with mail-in infrastructure and already held state primaries be a lesson learned and implemented in this time of crises.


**The author is an Associate Fellow at KIIPS. She is also a PhD Scholar from the Centre of Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.**