March 2020

Voting At Home: How Democracy Survives A Pandemic

How does democracy survive a pandemic?

Voter participation is a fundamental requirement to ensuring our government remains representative and functional. Yet, officials are warning people to not aggregate in public places, giving many Americans pause about exercising their civic duty to vote. The answer to the conundrum is a simple, tested way to how we vote: vote at home.  

Vote at home systems vary by state, but all allow voters to receive a ballot in the mail, research their candidates, and return the ballot before election day to be counted. The system has been proven to increase electoral participation, save taxpayer money, and enhance election security. In the short-term, the system offers relief to voters wary of voting in person, especially those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, including the elderly and immunocompromised.  

A white paper from the Unite America Institute outlines the key decisions local, state, and federal policymakers will need to make over the next few months to adequately prepare for this November’s election.

The most important required change is in the 17 states that currently require an excuse to vote by mail. Policymakers should quickly either upgrade the state to a no-excuse system, or -- as Indiana and West Virginia did for primaries -- make COVID-19 a valid excuse. There’s widespread support for this policy, and voters regularly use mailed ballots. 71% of Americans believe any voter should be able to cast a mailed ballot, with or without an excuse. And in 2016, more than two in five ballots nationwide, or 57.2 million votes were cast by mail.

In these 17 states, and in all the rest, election administrators are likely to be ill prepared to handle the increase in demand for mailed ballots. Election officials will need to invest in the tools, team, and technology necessary to significantly scale vote at home infrastructure. To meet the moment, federal funding is necessary. Congress has already allocated $425 million to the Election Assistance Commission, but another $1 billion is needed.

The white paper identifies a number of key policy provisions for lawmakers to consider, as well as implementation guidelines for administrators. Those recommendations include:

  • Allow online ballot requests | Administrative burdens can be reduced and human error removed if voters can request a mail ballot online.
  • Implement security provisions | Technology should be used to verify voters’ signatures against records on file with state agencies.
  • Provide secure drop-off locations | Voters should be able to return their ballot to a polling place or other secure location, in addition to being able to return ballots via mail.
  • Maintain in person polling locations | Communities can be disenfranchised when in-person voting options are not maintained.
  • Standardize criteria for rejecting ballots | Officials should be trained on why a ballot should be rejected, and a cure period should allow voters one week to fix their mistake.

There are also long term recommendation that policymakers should consider to optimize vote at home systems beyond this November, including:

  • Permanent Absentee Voter List (PAVL) | Administrative burdens can be reduced when voters can opt-in to receive a mailed ballot for all future elections, so that they do not need to fill out a form each time, reducing the amount of paperwork election administrators face.
  • Automated & Verified Registration (AVR) | Vote at home systems require accurate voter rolls; AVR automatically updates registration records for anyone that interacts with a public agency, like the Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) | By allowing voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, RCV prevents spoiled votes cast for candidates who drop out of the race. In ten states with runoff elections, RCV allows for runoffs to happen without having to mail a second round of ballots to absentee voters.

The coronavirus presents a real and present threat to our democracy. Luckily, policymakers at the local, state, and federal level have the tools they need to respond, if they act quickly and decisively. Vote at home systems, if implemented properly, promise to secure our November elections and ensure the integrity of our democracy.

Other research