Election officials and experts in recent days have been considering how they would handle a major disease outbreak in which quarantines or closures of facilities would affect Americans’ ability to vote in primary elections, party caucuses and the November general election.
While all states allow voting by mail in some circumstances, the availability of the option remains uneven, with some states allowing it to only seniors or those with excuses for why they can’t appear at polling places on Election Day. Five Western states conduct all of their statewide voting by mail, and a sixth, California, is gradually shifting to the practice.
The wide variation in practices could make it difficult to rapidly expand voting by mail in time for this November’s election. States that handle few mail-in ballots might struggle to build the systems and acquire the machinery, such as high-speed optical scanners, needed to expand the option.
“Every state could do this,” said Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state, whose state transitioned to voting by mail. But she cautioned that “it takes time to ramp up.”
Wyden’s bill would give all Americans the right to vote by mail if 25 percent of states declared an emergency related to the coronavirus outbreak. The bill also would require state and local officials to prepare for possible coronavirus disruptions and to offer prepaid envelopes with self-sealing flaps to minimize the risk of contagion from voters’ licking envelopes.
The bill would prohibit states from using the $500 million to implement mobile or other Internet-based voting technologies, though voters could still request their ballots through online means.
“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Wyden said. “When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site. This is a nonpartisan, common-sense solution to the very real threat is looming this November.”
Voting over the Internet, while tested in some countries, has struggled with security problems. A University of Michigan research team successfully hacked into local online voting systems in the District during a mock election in 2010, succeeding in altering hypothetical votes and causing the system to play the University of Michigan’s fight song, “The Victors.”
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported in February that they could penetrate a smartphone voting app in a way that allowed them to alter votes, suppress ballots and learn how individual voters cast their supposedly secret ballots.
Security experts say systems for voting by mail are much more secure. Election officials typically provide ballots that voters return. An outer envelope includes information, such as a name and signature, to verify the identity of the voter, and an inner envelope contains that ballot itself, guaranteeing the secrecy of the vote.
Security experts worry about the potential for spouses, parents or even community leaders to coerce voters to cast their mail-in ballots in a particular way, without the secrecy of a voting booth, though it’s not clear how widespread such problems are. Voting rates tend to be higher in places where voting by mail is routine, research shows.
“Vote by mail has its concerns, but it’s the only solution we could possibly do” in the case of major balloting disruptions, said Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor who studies election security.
But rapid expansion of voting by mail could complicate the counting and reporting of election results. States that now rarely use such systems might struggle to print enough ballots, mail them out, handle the returns, count the ballots and tabulate the results.
Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election official who now heads the National Vote at Home Institute, said that a major shift toward voting by mail for the November general election would most likely require state officials to expand their role in handling ballots because local authorities would find it difficult to add to their capacity quickly enough.
“The logistics involved in that … would crush local elections offices,” McReynolds said.
She estimated that Michigan, which had its primary election Tuesday, would need $48 million to mail a ballot to every voter, pay for postage and count the returned ballots.
Wyden’s bill also could run into resistance from Republicans, who traditionally have emphasized ballot security over systems that would expand access to voting.
Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state, who is a Republican, said voting by mail has become largely bipartisan there and now is widely embraced by most voters. But she said of her fellow Republicans, “Our base doesn’t like it.”