Elections Assistance Commission Circulates CDC Recommendations for In-Person Voting

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued safety guidance for election locations, staffers, and voters. Their standard COVID-19 guidance is mentioned. However, they offered more substantive advice that contradicts some states’ recent actions during their primaries. The CDC broadly supports “any feasible options for reducing the number of voters who congregate indoors” and other recommendations that should be well heeded for the remaining primaries and November’s general elections.

The CDC’s guidance offers similar recommendations that the Lincoln Network recently put forward in its paper on absentee voting. 

Some of their most poignant points are the following

  •  Maintain or increase the total number of polling places to improve social distancing & minimize lines.
  • Consider offering alternatives to in-person voting.
  • Offer early voting or extended hours, to ensure smaller crowds and encourage voters to arrive at off-peak times. 
  • Notify voters of changes to polling operations and ensure changes to operations do not limit accessibility to voters with disabilities.

They also offer logistical support, reminding centers to check ventilation systems, ensure janitorial staff are well scheduled, and reducing shared objects such as ballot activation cards, pens, and headphones. 

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), circulated their advice as they’ve witnessed the pitfalls throughout this year’s voting cycle. Although about 1-month late on the promotion, it is still an important signal as election officials and researchers uniquely collaborate to find solutions to both reduce the spread of the virus and implement practical voting solutions. 

States like Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Utah have been under the microscope in their most recent primaries. Kentucky for example, exhibited a beautiful display of bipartisanship as Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams and Democratic Governor Andy Seshear expanded absentee voting while keeping in-person voting open. Their collaboration resulted in 848,000 submitted absentee ballots. Which accounted for 80-85% of votes cast this year. 274,000 in-person votes, and a 5% increase in total voter participation. Such voting numbers haven’t been seen since 2008.

However, they were harshly lambasted as their measures for in-person voting were not as successful. There were not enough poll workers to serve across the state, according to Jefferson County Board of Elections representatives Bobbie Holsclaw and Carl Bensinger.  Many counties closed polling locations, reduced voting hours, and did not communicate changes to the voters — the exact opposite of what the CDC recommends. These acts prompted cries of voter disenfranchisement and caused Senate candidates Charles Booker and Amy McGrath to file emergency injunctions that led to Circuit Judge Annie O’Connell ruling to keep voting centers open

Election workers and politicians need to highly prioritize quality communications to manage the information flow to the voting public. We at the Lincoln Network suggest voting localities work with a public relations firm if possible to coordinate messaging. 

Utah, a permanent vote by mail state, and a historically republican state have exemplified good communication skills enabling years of successful elections. Vote by mail states have been prominently featured in research out of Stanford University, Rice University, Cambridge and Yale which shows that voters prefer mail-in voting and election officials support the cheaper price tag and increase in voter turnout. Utah noted that tallying results for mail-in voting took 1-extra day due to increased security measures; this year the state became one of a very few to not to open any polling places. Instead, voters had the option to drop off mail-in ballots in at “drive-thru” voting centers, in addition, to voting by mail.

The CDC guidance and practical experience during recent primary elections highlight the need for options beyond in-person voting in November. Options like voting-by-mail and early voting offer commonsense ways to promote participation while protecting public health during the pandemic. As Sean Roberts and I discuss in our recent paper, state and local election officials should provide these options while also taking other steps to protect voting integrity and prevent disenfranchisement.

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