The changes required vary from state to state, but in every jurisdiction they will require an enormous amount of resources. State and local election officials need to improve and expand online voter registration to ensure that every American has the opportunity to vote by mail. You need to expand early voting while changing personal voting so that the health of voters and election workers is not endangered. Fortunately, the stimulus package provides for each of these adjustments to ensure a safe and fair election this year, and is making $ 400 million available for this purpose. However, this is only a tiny down payment for maintaining our democracy, as we conservatively appreciate it costs at least $ 2 billion to do work in the more than 8,000 election areas in the United States. And we are running out of time.
In particular, there are three steps that all election officials must take now.
Expand online registration. In each presidential year, millions of Americans change their registration information or register for the first time – often long before November. Quarantines, closings and social distancing make it difficult for voter registration to proceed as usual. The 39 states that already have online registration systems need to strengthen them to accommodate an increase. States that do not have these features need to set up systems immediately or take other costly measures to ensure that their registration lists are accurate and up to date. These upgrades must now be done to meet the demand from people who want to vote.
It will take months to set up a new, secure online registration system. Edgardo Cortes, former Virginia Electoral Commissioner (and Brennan Center election security advisor), notes that his state took three months to implement an online registration system in 2013 and another four months to update after an increase in users it crashed in 2016.
Expand postal ballot papers. To protect public health, every American must be able to vote in the mail. This requires a radical overhaul of our voting system so that it can process tens of millions of additional postal ballot papers – not an easy task, especially in the many countries where postal voting is not the norm. New systems for the acceptance and processing of ballot applications will be required. Ballot tracking software; new voting systems; Equipment and structures for holding, sorting, processing and counting such ballots; and find and build secure storage for everything. According to print providers, for example, ballots will not be ready by November if no complete ballot paper orders are received by early summer.
Reconfigure polling stations. While a dramatic increase in postal voting is needed to ensure that Americans can vote safely, states also need to reconfigure polling station voting, especially for those who cannot use or have trouble using postal votes. To prevent overcrowding, they need to extend the days and hours of early voting, find larger polling stations, and provide sanitation for election workers and voters. They also have to hire new workers to replace the inevitable layoffs by election workers. For example, the state of Washington typically employs 500 temporary election workers two months before each election, even without the virus.
Election officials across the country are ready to support this and other critical adjustments. The key will be to ensure that they have the resources to implement them in a timely manner. The date of the November election cannot and will not change.
So far, no matter what happens, we’ve held elections in the history of this country. A civil war, the Spanish flu, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters have not stopped us. We can also hold a functioning election in November, but only if Congress acts quickly. The full $ 2 billion needed to protect our elections is a drop in the ocean, just a tenth of a percent of the stimulus package. The $ 400 million they have allocated is badly needed, but they are short selling our democracy and the American people.