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Ballots are prepared to be mailed to voters in Oregon. (Don Ryan/AP)

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The safest way to hold an election during the coronavirus pandemic is to not. But canceling elections, especially in a presidential year, isn’t an option. So 15 states have moved their primaries back to the summer, and nearly every state is considering how it can have more people vote in November by mail instead of in person. That means they could either expand absentee balloting while keeping fewer polling places open, or they could mail ballots to all voters.

But easier said than done. Only five states have the ability to hold a statewide by-mail election, and it took them years to set it up and work out the kinks. The states considering it now have months, if that, which means they need to decide in the next few weeks whether to push for all-mail elections for November and hope it can be done. Here are the biggest hurdles to having more people vote by mail in November.

Money and equipment

The equipment that states have to conduct in-person elections won’t work for mail-in elections. The scanners many states have to count ballots in each polling places can’t handle counting ballots en masse from the whole county or state. The kind of scanner that can do that heavy work costs $500,000 to $1 million, said Wendy Underhill, an elections expert with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

Also, states can’t just mail out the ballots they already have printed. They have to design ballots that can be folded into an envelope. They also need to print instructions for how to fill it out and send it back. And they need to design the ballot to work with the Postal Service, Underhill said. “So instead of one piece of paper with a ballot, you have several pieces of paper that need to be prepared,” she said.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (D) is considering moving to a mail-only election. He said part of that calculation is figuring out how to pay for postage for those ballots, so no one has to go out and buy stamps.

The staffing must change with a by-mail election, too. To run a day-of election, states probably need several thousand poll workers willing to come in for 12-14 hours on a single day. For a by-mail election, states might need a fraction of those staffers, but they’ll need people who can work for weeks before the election helping get it set up and then weeks afterward helping count ballots. (Which, with 6.6 million people claiming unemployment last week alone, might not be hard to find.) And then you have to train those people, which would be a challenge for an election official who has also never done this before.

“It’s not a toggle, turn on, turn off to do mail voting,” Underhill said.

Training voters on what to do

If voters are used to walking or driving to their polling place to vote, it’s going to be a significant switch for them to vote in their own homes. So states will want to try some kind of voter outreach — posters, mailings, social media.

Iowa is looking at ramping up absentee ballots. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) estimates that outreach to inform voters about that will cost the state $500,000 alone. That’s just one of several must-do costs he has to take on to shift to mail ballots. Overall, he said, “we are conservatively looking at $2 million for the primary, and in the general it will be substantially more.” His whole budget for a normal presidential election year is $1.5 million.

Congress included $400 million in its coronavirus relief bill for states to make alternative election plans, but that will be a drop in the bucket for states that want to alter their elections. “It’s a very helpful down payment,” Simon, of Minnesota, said. Democrats and election officials estimate moving states to more mail voting could cost as much as $4 billion. Voter education would be a sizable chunk of the budget.

“People are being asked to do something in a way they haven’t been used to doing it," Simon said, “so there’s a cultural shift that will have to happen in pretty short order.”

Delayed results

When you vote by mail, “don’t expect to have election results at 9:15 p.m.,” Pate said. For a primary, it could take Iowa a night or two to get back results, and in a general election, it might take a week or two. The best practice in vote-by-mail states is to allow voters to put it in the mail on Election Day. States like Kansas put in a mechanism to allow voters to re-do incorrectly filled-out ballot envelopes (Some just toss them in the scrap pile, Underhill said, but there are likely to be more errors the first time states try this.) “This is not a speed game,” Pate warned. “This is going to be an integrity and safety game.”

Ramping up absentee voting

This comes with its own challenges. In most states, voters have to request absentee ballots before they can get one mailed to them. That means voters have to take an extra step — like filling out an extra form — to get their ballot.

Iowa is mailing out absentee applications statewide, with prepaid postage. Other states are looking at setting up online portals for people to fill out applications to get an absentee ballot.

Some states have strict rules about who can request an absentee ballot (you have to show why you won’t be at home) and/or strict rules about how to fill it out. In North Carolina, you have to have two people or a notary to witness you fill out your absentee ballot. North Carolina is considering loosening its restrictions for absentee voting.

Pate warns that states that don’t usually receive a ton of absentee ballots every year, like Louisiana, will be overwhelmed if suddenly a majority of their election results are absentee.

Finally, a lot of states need state legislatures to sign off on how they change their elections. In Wisconsin, which is controversially still holding its in-person primary Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers (D) asked the legislature to allow the state to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters, but Republican leaders rejected that idea.

Fighting impersonation

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the states that already vote by mail. But it’s something the secretaries of state are thinking about carefully, said Pate, who is also president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

“It’s a legitimate question,” he said, “and it’s one we are all wrestling with.”

Underhill said a proven way to fight voter fraud by mail voting is to have the voter sign the back of the ballot envelope, then compare the signature to the one on record with the state.

Pure politics

Some Republicans — from a Georgia state lawmaker to the president of the United States — have outright said it: If you mail every registered voter a ballot, you expand the voting pool beyond those who would go to a polling place. And if you expand the voting pool, in many states you expand it to include more Democrats, since younger voters and voters of color and transient voters tend to vote in lower numbers.

“The things they had in there were crazy,” President Trump said this week on Fox and Friends of Democrats’ proposals for the coronavirus relief package. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Their blatantly partisan concerns about expanding voting aren’t unfounded. Research by nonpartisan advocates for voting by mail show that turnout is up several percentage points in states that have vote by mail. After Colorado moved to this system in 2014, turnout was up 3.3 percentage points from the last primary. And driving that were people less likely to vote in person, like Hispanic voters, who were up 10 percent.

None of the election officials The Fix talked to stated this as a concern. They’re focused on trying to figure out how people can vote safely in summer primaries and the fall election. It’s not clear at this point how many states will move to all-mail voting, but it is clear that nearly every state is going to try to increase how many people vote by mail in some form.

But they’re going to have to act quickly and clear some major hurdles to do it.

Correction: This originally stated the incorrect estimate for costs to let states do all-mail elections.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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