Across the nation, medical professionals and first responders are mobilizing to combat and control the coronavirus — leveraging whatever materials and resources they have available to give patients the best chance of survival. The fight against COVID-19 is a war, and they are on the battlefield every day.
A similar spirit of ingenuity and determination will be needed for Minnesota’s election officials to administer the 2020 contests this fall. They face monumental challenges: Making it possible for voters to cast ballots when many may be inclined to stay home to avoid the risk of infection from the novel coronavirus. How can millions of voters who do cast ballots be protected from the virus?
The coronavirus is already affecting the 2020 elections. State after state has altered the primary election calendar as the risk to voters and election personnel grows. Large numbers of poll workers in Wisconsin are already balking at showing up for its April 7 primary out of fear of infection. The critical primary states of Ohio and New York have delayed their elections and stretched out the Democratic presidential nomination contest.
The November elections must proceed unless Congress changes the date, which is highly unlikely. Election officials face the difficult challenge of moving ahead without putting voters and poll workers at risk.
The best option is to enable Americans to practice social distancing and vote. This is feasible by accelerating the recent shift from casting a ballot in person on Election Day to casting our ballots by mail. Minnesota’s Secretary of State Steve Simon is proposing to mail each registered voter a ballot this year to be completed at home and returned by mail. (Voting in person will remain an option for voters who cannot, or prefer not to, cast their ballots by mail.)
Let’s be candid, though. Minnesota — and many other states — are behind the eight ball in switching to vote-by-mail in only a few months. Five states now rely entirely on vote-by-mail; they devoted years to making the transition.
The “to do” list is long for Minnesota and other states:
Printing millions of ballots, putting them in envelopes, and mailing them to registered voters with return envelopes and postage. Dedicated machinery to open and tabulate mail ballots needs to be purchased, tested, and the personnel trained to use it.
A new, large budget is needed to pay for all of the above. (Mailing a single ballot and covering its return will cost $1.10.) Congress provided $400 million to states in the most recent coronavirus stimulus bill — funding that is badly needed but is only about a fifth of what many experts say is necessary to do the job.
Mailing ballots to all registered voters is the most effective and least costly approach to transition to voting from home. But many states — including Minnesota — lack the legal authority to make the switch. Will the Legislature pass new legislation immediately to authorize this shift? Can Gov. Tim Walz use his emergency powers to authorize it with an executive order?
The new process, higher costs and legal hurdles to retool elections will strap officials. The good news is that election officials in Minnesota are nationally recognized for their nonpartisan professionalism and resourcefulness in making do with less-than-perfect conditions in service of voters and our democracy.
Elections in Minnesota are a team sport. Secretary of State Simon consults and collaborates with cities, counties, and other stakeholders who appear ready to consider the transition to vote by mail. Already, this is common in Minnesota’s smaller towns where about 100,000 ballots are cast by mail.
Administrators from states that entirely vote by mail are sharing their experiences and advice, including the difficulty in making a sudden change.
Minnesotans have high expectations of our election officials — and they should. And, yet, the coronavirus is forcing all of us to adapt expectations. Given the speed, depth and breadth of the likely alterations to the election process, we should not expect the changes to be seamless or smooth. Election offices will be upending years of planning for November’s election and shifting to a new voting model on the fly.
Rules guiding the purchasing of new equipment, the normal legislative process and other changes will have to be altered or suspended — requiring flexibility from policymakers and others in state and local government. The process will be messy, and frustrating, and require patience from everyone involved.
Minnesota’s election officials should be encouraged (and allowed) to approach the 2020 election with the same spirit shown by medical professionals and first responders — recognizing that we are at war with the coronavirus and using whatever resources and expertise are available to win that fight. This commitment to “battlefield surgery,” while it may not be perfect or permanent, is out best chance to continue Minnesota’s nation-leading voter turnout record in a time of a pandemic.
Doug Chapin and Lawrence Jacobs are founders, University of Minnesota Election Administration program.