Cover: An Assessment of State Voting Processes

An Assessment of State Voting Processes

Preparing for Elections During a Pandemic

Published Aug 5, 2020

by Jennifer Kavanagh, Quentin E. Hodgson, C. Ben Gibson, Samantha Cherney


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Research Questions

  1. What are ways to handle voter registration that do not require face-to-face interactions?
  2. What sort of remote voting options do states offer?
  3. How many states allow in-person voting before Election Day?
  4. Which states are most and least prepared to conduct elections under pandemic conditions in November 2020?

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has presented a severe threat to state election plans in 2020 for primaries and for the general election. To conduct an election during the COVID-19 pandemic, states need registration and voting options that minimize direct personal contact and that reduce crowds and common access to high-touch surfaces. Another way to think about preparedness for conducting elections during a pandemic is to consider the flexibility that state election processes afford in terms of where, when, and how voters can get registered and cast votes. Particularly valuable to flexibility in the pandemic context are options that allow for the registration and voting processes to happen remotely or in ways that reduce person-to-person contact. In this report, the authors summarize state election laws on early voting, remote voting, and voter registration and discuss the potential implications of these laws for the execution of the November 2020 general election under conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. This report is part of RAND's Countering Truth Decay initiative, which is focused on restoring the role of facts, data, and analysis in U.S. political and civil discourse and the policymaking process.

Key Findings

Registration options vary from state to state

  • Eight states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration, online registration, and same-day registration and are thus well positioned to register new voters safely (without additional person-to-person contact) and to provide voters several options to minimize personal health risk.
  • Six states have none of these provisions; their registration processes are still conducted in person and as opt-in, stand-alone transactions.

Most states offer remote voting options

  • All but 16 states have a mail-in or absentee option that is open to all eligible voters and does not require an excuse. Those 16 states favor in-person voting, which might create social distancing and sanitation challenges.
  • Six states and the District of Columbia have especially flexible remote-voting systems that feature a no-excuse mail-in option, have no witness or notary requirement, and let the voter return the ballot postmarked on Election Day.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, five states have processes with none of these characteristics.

Early voting also might help with exposure risk

  • Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have early voting options, which could improve social distancing. Six states have a limited early voting option for those with qualifying reasons.

States that use several of these approaches will be best positioned to address safety concerns related to conducting elections during the COVID-19 pandemic because they can shift to remote processes and better support social distancing if necessary

  • Nine states offer nothing in the way of automatic registration, early voting, or no-excuse mail-in options. These states will face the largest challenges in shifting to remote and distributed processes if such a move is required.
  • Twelve states and the District of Columbia have all three policies and are well positioned for conducting an election during a pandemic.
  • Approaches that support flexibility and resilience with respect to conducting elections during a pandemic also have implications for election access and integrity that should be considered.

Funding for RAND's Countering Truth Decay research initiative is provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. RAND would like to recognize the Joel and Joanne Mogy Truth Decay Fellowship, established by the Mogys in 2020 to support research on Truth Decay, civics, and democracy. The authors drew from the Mogys' generous gift to fund this project.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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