● Election Changes: In an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, officials across the nation are rescheduling elections and altering voting procedures to allow citizens to vote safely so that our democracy can continue to function. We are keeping close track of all of these changes, including those that are being considered and those that have already been implemented.
Each weekday in the Morning Digest, Daily Kos Elections' newsletter focused on elections, you can find our summary of all the latest developments on this front (if you are not already subscribed, you can do so here for free). So far, the following states have moved their statewide primaries for various offices from the presidency down the ballot to local offices:
- Alabama: from March 31 to July 14 (congressional runoffs)
- Connecticut: from April 2 to June 2 (presidential)
- Georgia: from March 24 to May 19 (presidential)
- Indiana: from May 5 to June 2 (presidential & downballot)
- Kentucky: from May 19 to June 23 (presidential & downballot)
- Louisiana: from April 4 to June 20 (presidential)
- Maryland: from April 28 to June 2 (presidential & downballot)
- Mississippi: from March 31 to June 23 (congressional runoff)
- Missouri: from April 7 to June 2 (local)
- New Jersey: from March and April to May 12 (special and school board)
- North Carolina: from May 12 to June 23 (congressional runoff)
- Ohio: from March 17 to June 2 (tentative) (presidential & downballot)
- Oklahoma: from April 7 to undetermined date (optional) (local)
- South Carolina: from March and April to undetermined date (local)
- Texas: from May 26 to July 14 (downballot runoff) and from May 2 to Nov. 3 (optional) (local)
Postponements in many other states are currently under discussion. You can stay on top of all the major changes by bookmarking our 2020 calendar of statewide elections, which we are continually updating.
In addition, many states are weighing changes to their voting procedures. Most commonly, officials are making it easier to vote by mail. Seventeen states, for instance, require voters to provide an excuse when requesting an absentee ballot—a requirement that multiple states have already waived. Others are contemplating whether to conduct upcoming elections entirely by mail. We will discuss these efforts at length in this issue of the Voting Rights Roundup.
Several voting rights organizations and election experts have also issued recommendations on the policies and preparations needed to implement voting by mail and related measures to ensure elections can still proceed safely without inadvertently disenfranchising voters or endangering election workers. The most comprehensive reports have come from the National Vote at Home Institute, the Brennan Center for Justice (both here and here), Electionland, Politico, Georgetown University professor Matt Blaze, and the Lawfare Institute.
● 2020 Census: The Census Bureau has suspended in-person field operations for the 2020 census until at least April 1 and is encouraging American residents to complete the census remotely via the internet, mail, or phone. You can find more details on how to respond online here. Meanwhile, the bureau has extended the counting of responses from July 31 to Aug. 14. Census workers will begin in-person contact for those who haven't responded no earlier than May 13 in college towns and May 28 for the rest of the U.S.
● Congress: Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden have introduced a bill with the support of around half of the Democratic caucus that would provide funding for every state to take the following steps to ensure elections can continue to take place:
- Remove any excuse requirement to vote absentee by mail.
- Offer at least 20 days of in-person early voting.
- Begin counting of early votes 14 days before Election Day to lessen delays.
- Ensure that voters can register at least until 21 days before Election Day.
- Create an emergency voting plan to keep voters and poll workers safe.
- Allow online absentee ballot requests until at least five days before Election Day.
- Ensure absentee ballots count if they're postmarked by Election Day and received no more than 10 days afterward.
- Require prepaid postage and self-sealing envelopes on mail ballots and ballot request forms.
- Require states to let voters download a printable absentee ballot they can fill out and mail in if they don't receive a requested absentee ballot or are unable to use other voting methods.
- Guarantee that voters can track the status of their mail ballots.
- Require that voters be notified of and given a chance to correct any problem with their signatures on mail ballots.
- Ensure that Native American tribes have access to voting in places where mail service is not adequate.
The Brennan Center for Justice has released a report analyzing the cost of changes such as these, which it estimates at $1 billion to $1.4 billion for implementing expanded mail voting in every state. Adding in complementary voting access measures, in-person polling place safety measures, and a public awareness campaign brings the total to $2 billion, a tiny fraction of the sums necessary to combat the coronavirus and a pittance compared to the pricelessness of democracy.
● Arizona: Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has asked Arizona's Republican legislature to authorize universal voting by mail. Arizona already has a permanent mail ballot list and regularly sees around 75% of votes cast by mail, but voters still have to opt into this system.
● Florida: A federal judge rejected a last-minute request filed late on Monday night to extend the absentee deadline for Florida's presidential primary, which took place on Tuesday, until March 27. However, the judge did not rule on the underlying merits of the lawsuit but rather on plaintiffs' request for a temporary restraining order, so it's possible absentee balloting could be re-opened when a final ruling is issued.
● Georgia: Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger says his office is contemplating a plan to mail absentee ballot applications to the 2 million Georgia voters over the age of 60, and possibly to all 7.2 million registered voters regardless of age. Voting rights advocates, however, want Raffensperger to skip the application step and instead simply mail out ballots to all voters, but the secretary of state's office claims it cannot afford to administer an all-mail election.
● Idaho: Idaho Democrats are calling for a vote-by-mail May primary and for voters to be able to request absentee ballots online and not just by mail or in person. Republican Secretary of State Lawrence Denney has said the GOP legislature would have to approve a vote-by-mail election but encouraged voters to cast an absentee ballot, which does not require an excuse.
● Indiana: Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb both the Democratic and Republican state party chairs have called on Indiana's Elections Commission to remove the excuse requirement to vote absentee by mail for this year's elections, which the commission can do via unanimous vote of its two Democratic and two Republican members. Holcomb and the party chairs also want the state to push back its absentee ballot application deadline.
● Kentucky: Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams says he is weighing whether to move to an all-mail election, though he considers the idea "a last resort." Whether or not Adams pursues this option, Kentucky still requires voters to provide an excuse to vote absentee and has yet to waive it.
● Maryland: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has ordered that the special election for the state's vacant 7th Congressional District will still go forward on April 28, but it will be conducted entirely by mail. Meanwhile, the Democratic-run legislature has passed a bill to prepay the postage cost on mail ballots.
● Massachusetts: Massachusetts still requires an excuse to vote absentee by mail, but leaders in the supermajority-Democratic legislature said they would take up legislation on Monday that would make it easier to vote by mail.
● Montana: Several candidates seeking statewide office in Montana this year, including Republican state Senate President Scott Sales and Democratic state Sen. Bryce Bennett, both of whom are running for secretary of state, have called for the state's June 2 primary to be conducted entirely by mail if counties choose to do so. A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock says the governor has not made any decisions and is "considering all options."
● New Hampshire: New Hampshire's Democratic-run state House has passed a bill largely along party lines to remove the excuse requirement needed to cast an absentee mail ballot. Both chambers of the Democratic legislature passed a similar proposal last year only for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to veto it. However, given the ongoing concerns about in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sununu may sign it this time.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Bill Gardner's office says it is considering loosening the excuse requirement for voting absentee.
● New Jersey: Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered that New Jersey's May 12 local elections take place entirely by mail. Meanwhile, the Democratic-run legislature has unanimously passed a bill to allow clerks to send mail ballots out a week earlier, and Assembly leaders from both parties have signaled they could pass a future bill to prepay the postage on mail ballots.
● Ohio: Democrats have filed a lawsuit over Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose's order to postpone the March 17 primary to a tentative date of June 2, asking the conservative-majority state Supreme Court to reject his directive. Democrats instead want officials to accept absentee mail ballots through April 28 and establish drop boxes where voters can submit them in-person. Subsequently, some election officials have said they're considering holding an all-mail primary, and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has said he's open to the idea.
● Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico's Senate passed a bill on Monday moving the commonwealth's presidential primary from March 29 to April 26, though the House apparently will not take it up until next week. According to USA Today, Gov. Wanda Vazquez supports the change.
● Rhode Island: Democratic Secretary Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has said she prefers a "predominantly mail ballot" election ahead of the primary, which is currently set for April 28. Rhode Island law makes it easy for voters to come up with a valid excuse to vote absentee, but simply requiring they provide one at all could discourage absentee voting.
● Texas: Democrats have asked state officials to consider universal voting-by-mail ahead of the May 26 primary runoffs, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott didn't rule out the idea on Tuesday. Texas currently requires an excuse to vote absentee by mail, and Democrats filed a lawsuit in state court on Friday seeking to ensure that all voters would be able to vote by absentee due to the coronavirus pandemic.
● Virginia: Virginia's Department of Elections says that all voters will be allowed to cast absentee ballots in the state's May 5 local elections. However, the Virginia Mercury reports that no such decision has yet been made regarding the state's June 9 congressional primaries. Virginia lawmakers previously passed a bill to remove the excuse requirement to vote absentee that is still awaiting Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's signature, but that measure wouldn't take effect until July 1.
● West Virginia: Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner has issued a directive allowing voters to use the coronavirus pandemic as a valid excuse to vote absentee by mail.
● Wisconsin: A federal district court on Friday ordered that the March 18 deadline for voter registration online or by-mail for the upcoming April 7 presidential primary and state Supreme Court general election be extended to March 30 after state and national Democrats filed a lawsuit on Wednesday. The court denied Democrats' request that voters be allowed to register to vote and request absentee ballots without photo ID or proof of residence. It also denied Democrats' claim that absentee ballots should be counted so long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received no more than 10 days later, but it let them continue to make their case for that provision as the litigation proceeds.
Republican legislators filed to intervene in order to dismiss the lawsuit but the court has yet to rule on that request as of late Friday. Members of Wisconsin's bipartisan Elections Commission have urged Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the GOP legislature to hold a special session to change the state's laws along the lines that plaintiffs are seeking.
● Ballot Access: While the coronavirus pandemic has become a major disruption for voters and election officials, it has also made it harder to qualify for the ballot in the first place. Most worryingly, it could thwart efforts to put redistricting reform and voting rights expansions on the ballot. In fact, proponents of an independent redistricting commission ballot initiative that was recently filed in Arkansas have announced that they are temporarily suspending the collection of voter signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
While that suspension may only be temporary, time is quickly running out to change redistricting procedures before every state must conduct decennial redistricting starting next year. Efforts to reform redistricting are ongoing but have yet to qualify for the ballot as initiatives in Arkansas, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Voting access measures that advocates are trying to put on the ballot in Arizona and Ohio are also now at risk.
Ballot measures aren't the only campaigns facing problems with signature-gathering, since many states require candidates for elected office to submit voter signatures, too. So far, officials in New York and Vermont have taken steps to reduce or waive the number of signatures required for candidates to qualify for the ballot this year.
● Florida: Florida's Republican-run legislature has adjourned its regular session after passing a bill that would make it harder to use ballot initiatives to amend the state's constitution. The GOP's bill would raise the number of signatures needed for the required judicial review before a measure could qualify for the ballot; add additional legal requirements; and shorten the window to gather signatures. The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for his expected signature.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Utah: Utah's Republican-run legislature has passed a bill to repeal the straight-ticket voting option, with near-unanimous support in the state Senate, while all Democrats and just over half of Republicans supported the measure in the state House. GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has not said whether or not he will sign the measure.
We've previously explained how repealing the straight ticket voting option has exacerbated long voting lines in other states such as North Carolina in a way that disproportionately affected black voters, who voted straight tickets more often. However, that concern is less of a risk in Utah since the state now votes almost entirely by mail, though repeal could still increase the rate of undervoting in races further down the ballot.
● Election Security: A new audit of the Voatz smartphone voting app used by West Virginia and some other jurisdictions in 2018 for military and overseas voters has found "severe" vulnerabilities in the program that present major security risks. The audit was conducted by the cybersecurity firm Trail of Bits and backed by a foundation that has been funding pilot programs using Voatz.
This audit follows on the heels of an MIT report that also found major flaws with Voatz, as well as West Virginia's decision late last month to switch to an alternative system of letting people print out and mail in absentee ballots instead. Election security experts have widely warned against internet-based voting due to security vulnerabilities and have recommended a system that relies on paper ballot records instead.
● Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico legislators have passed a bill that would have the entire commonwealth vote online by 2028, a move that would dramatically increase the vulnerability of the island's elections by exposing them to direct hacking.
The bill would establish a pilot effort during which early and absentee voters could vote online in the 2020 elections, and all voters would have that option in 2024. By 2028, Puerto Rico's election commission would be able to decide whether voters could only vote online, but the bill doesn't specify how internet voting would be conducted or secured.
Although advocates of easier voting access have long considered online voting as a potential way to boost turnout, election security experts have widely warned against internet voting as impossible to truly secure from all threats. The ACLU and computer security experts have sent letters to Gov. Wanda Vázquez urging her to veto the bill, which she has up to 10 days to do after it reaches her desk, and it's probable that there would be a lawsuit if the measure ultimately becomes law.
● Virginia: Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has signed a law that legislators unanimously passed to require all voting methods to use paper ballots, whether voters filling them out ballots by hand or use a "ballot marking device" machine that prints out a completed ballot.
● San Diego, CA: Members of San Diego's Democratic-majority City Council recently said they will consider a proposal to adopt a "top-four" primary, where the four candidates with the most support advance to the general election, regardless of party. In the general election, voters would use instant-runoff voting to choose from the final four options. This system would replace the current "top-two" primary system. Supporters of the change have said they would attempt to put it on November's ballot as an initiative if the council does not pass it and place it on the ballot as a referendum.
State Supreme Court Elections
● Georgia: A state court has rejected a lawsuit brought by candidates from both parties who had wanted to run in a May 19 state Supreme Court election that Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger canceled after GOP-appointed Justice Keith Blackwell announced his intent to resign in mid-November, six weeks before his term ends. (The cancelation was unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak.) The plaintiffs have appealed, and the state Supreme Court will take up the case. Including Blackwell, the high court has a 7-1 majority of Republican appointees, with one seat vacant.
● Kentucky: With virtually no notice, Kentucky Republicans revised their photo voter ID bill to make it much more restrictive and passed it out of the legislature before the final bill version was even made public—and after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear had ordered the state capitol closed to the public to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Because Republicans can override Beshear's all-but-certain veto with just a simple majority, this bill will almost certainly become law.
Before the coronavirus hit crisis levels, Republicans had passed different versions of the bill in each chamber, with the state House offering a less strict alternative to the Senate's. Republicans, without warning, then unveiled a compromise version that eliminated a House provision letting voters who lacked a valid photo ID provide a sworn statement explaining in their own words why they couldn't obtain ID, instead limiting voters to a list of pre-approved excuses. The final bill also bans a number of IDs from other states, which could effectively function as a poll tax as some previously eligible voters would have to pay to obtain a Kentucky ID.
Perversely, these stepped-up requirements come at the same time that the state has closed driver's license offices and county clerks' offices to slow the virus, making it impossible for many voters who lack a valid ID to obtain one. Voting rights advocates are all but certain to sue once Republicans pass the bill into law.
This voting restriction comes despite the fact that Kentucky, which has postponed its primaries to June over coronavirus fears, is nowhere near ready to handle voting amid the pandemic. Kentucky is one of just a handful of states that not only requires an excuse to vote absentee by mail but also offers no in-person early voting.
Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams has backed a bill introduced earlier this month with several provisions to make it easier to vote, such as removing the absentee excuse requirement, but given that Republican lawmakers have instead chosen to pass new voting restrictions amid this ongoing public health emergency, its prospects appear slim.
● Kentucky: A committee in Kentucky's GOP-run state House has passed a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to some people who have finished serving their sentences for a felony conviction while continuing to permanently disenfranchise others, following the heavily Republican state Senate's passage of a different version of the amendment last month.
The GOP's proposed constitutional amendment would give the legislature the authority to set by statute how people who've served their felony convictions could regain their voting rights. That would allow lawmakers to, among other things, impose a waiting period before an affected citizen could regain their rights, which some Republicans would like to set at five years.
The GOP's amendment would also maintain a permanent ban for those convicted of a large number of different crimes, including any violent offense. People convicted of such crimes would have to obtain an individual pardon from the governor to regain their rights, which is currently the case for everyone with a felony conviction.
Roughly half of Senate Democrats had opposed the bill, with those voting against it saying it doesn't go far enough. Opponents also warned that it could undermine Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's recent executive order that automatically restored voting rights to 140,000 people who had served their sentences for non-violent felonies. However, Republican state Senate President Robert Stivers claimed the amendment would not interfere with Beshear's order.
If the full state House also approves the bill with a three-fifths supermajority support and both chambers agree on a single version, it would go before voters as a referendum this fall. Beshear has no ability to veto the measure.
● Colorado: Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has signed a law that legislative Democrats passed to end the practice of prison gerrymandering by counting incarcerated people for redistricting purposes at their last address instead of where they are imprisoned (and can't even vote). Roughly 19,000 people would be reassigned from locations with prisons to their prior communities, which could shift representation particularly at the legislative level from whiter rural communities with prisons to urban communities of color.
Correction: In previous version of this story, we incorrectly characterized legislation that Florida Republicans proposed as a constitutional amendment, which would have required three-fifths supermajorities to pass. As a result, we also incorrectly stated that the measure had failed when lawmakers adjourned. In fact, the measure was statutory in nature, meaning it only needed simple majorities to pass, which it achieved.