Skip to content

Pandemic pushes states to vote-by-mail, bringing new challenges

Congress is showing greater interest in vote-by-mail systems

An election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020.
An election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020. (JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

States and local election jurisdictions across the country are preparing for a surge in voting by mail this November stemming from people’s reluctance to gather in crowds or even venture out if the coronavirus pandemic persists through late fall.

The switch to mail-in ballots is likely to heighten security challenges both on cyber and physical fronts

While many western states including Oregon, Washington, Colorado and parts of California already rely heavily on vote-by-mail, states east of the Mississippi are likely to see an increase in absentee voter requests and for vote-by-mail, and are preparing for that, Ben Hovland, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, told CQ Roll Call in an interview.

In conference calls with state officials, Hovland said he has heard them discuss changes in processes and procedures to prepare for a surge in vote-by-mail and the risks that could stem from the shift.

“It adds to an already difficult job that state election officials face,” Hovland said. “People need to be aware of potential new risk vectors in as far as some jurisdictions are talking about creating an online portal for voters to request mail-in ballots.”

“Voting by mail is not like flipping a switch,” Hovland said. “There may be as much work as running a polling place.”

States already have postponed presidential primaries because of fears of spreading the virus through polling places.

In the huge stimulus bill that the Senate has approved and awaits approval by the House to address the health and economic effects of COVID19, Congress also has provided $400 million in federal grants to the Election Assistance Commission to be used to help states cope with the challenges they would face from an increased reliance on vote-by-mail.

[Coronavirus response includes $400 million in election assistance. Will it be enough?]

The federal grant is only a fraction of what it might cost states to gear up for a switch toward mailed ballots. The Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that it would take as much as $2 billion to cast votes by mail as well as for proper sanitization of voting places.

House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday proposed providing as much as $4 billion in federal grants to the EAC. The money would be available for the agency to provide grants to states to help with “contingency planning, preparation, and resilience of elections,” Pelosi said in a statement. The proposal also would make it a “national requirement for both 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail, including mailing a ballot to all registered voters in an emergency.”

Senate bill

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also have been pushing for a measure that would expand vote-by-mail. But the Democratic proposals have not been incorporated in the stimulus bill heading to a vote in the House on Friday.

Both lawmakers said they intend to continue advocating for their bill because state election officials are demanding federal aid to boost vote-by-mail.

“‘States need money yesterday for vote-by-mail,’” Klobuchar quoted Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate telling her aides on a recent call.

Both lawmakers said Republican members of Congress also are showing greater interest in vote-by-mail systems. Wyden has been pushing vote-by-mail legislation since 2002 but has been routinely met with fears of a “federal takeover” of elections, he said. But that may be changing as a result of the pandemic, he said.

Wyden and Klobuchar said in the absence of established procedures for mailing ballots, elderly voters may be forced to go to physical polling stations where they’re likely to encounter elderly poll workers, and those interactions could further exacerbate the spread of the pandemic.

States that are yet to hold presidential primaries as well as those that have postponed theirs are facing pressure from constituents to expand vote-by-mail, Wyden said.

At the same time, Wyden said, he is watching closely to ensure that the $400 million grant is not misused by states adopting untested mobile apps in place of vote-by-mail systems.

Voter registration

The push toward vote-by-mail means that online voter registration systems will likely face a growing demand and states have to be prepared for that, Larry Norden, director of the election reform project at the Brennan Center, told CQ Roll Call.

“You’re going to have to put even more focus on the online voter registration system and even more on the registration databases,” Norden said. Those databases will have to be accurate and up to date to verify the people voting by mail.

The Senate Intelligence Committee last year said in a report that, during the 2016 election, Russian intelligence services conducted reconnaissance on election systems including voter registration databases in all 50 states. The Department of Homeland Security has said publicly that only 21 states’ computer systems were targeted, and seven were breached. U.S. officials have said no details were changed or votes were altered as a result.

Hacking and altering the database is not the only concern, Norden said. The online registration sites and portals that allow voters to ask for mailed ballots should be capable of handling the surge and be secure from denial of service attacks, he said.

In the United Kingdom, a voter registration site crashed in June 2016 just before the deadline for voters in the country to sign up and vote on the Brexit referendum. While the U.K. government has said the crash stemmed from a surge in demand, it could have been caused by a denial-of-service attack, a group of British parliamentarians has said.

In a denial-of-service attack, an attacker can automate the process of seeking information from a website and generate such a huge volume of such queries that it causes the site to crash.

“We need to be extra prepared in the days before registration deadlines, to ensure that the systems can handle the surge,” Norden said.

With large-scale use of mailed ballots, provisional ballots that are often handed out on Election Day to a voter whose identity cannot be verified at a precinct are no longer an option, and therefore the integrity of registration databases “becomes even more important,” Norden said. “You’ve got to audit the database beforehand to ensure it’s accurate,” and states have to undertake penetration testing of their cyber defenses to make sure the systems can withstand an attack, he said.

But a surge in mailed ballots also could yield some upsides — more paper ballots means that they all can be audited. The combination of changes already made by states since the 2016 election and a potential rise in vote-by-mail could mean that well over 90 percent of voters may generate a paper ballot in November, Norden said.

In addition to ensuring that online voter registration websites and sites to request mail-in ballots are secure from cyberattacks and can withstand spikes in demand, states also are figuring out new equipment they’ll need to process, verify and count mailed ballots, Hovland said.

States may need automated sorting equipment that can cost as much as $1 million, and it could take some jurisdictions months to procure, install and train workers to use them, Hovland said.

Just as physical voting characteristics vary county by county, the 8,800 local jurisdictions may also have variations in how they handle vote-by-mail, Hovland said.

Some localities may process mailed ballots in precincts where the voters would normally have voted, while others may centralize the scanning and counting process, he said. Each approach would generate different requirements for machines.

Many western states also provide dedicated drop boxes where voters can drop off their ballots instead of mailing them, saving on postage. But boxes require upfront costs.

Introducing drop boxes in states that don’t have them will require buying the boxes, hiring contractors to install, including bolting them to ensure no one can walk away with a box, weatherproofing them and even installing security cameras to monitor them.

On election night, jurisdictions offering drop-box service will have to have teams of people going around collecting votes and locking up the boxes to ensure no one drops in their ballot after the deadline, Hovland said. Voters new to vote-by-mail options would have to be educated on how to use them, he said.

“There’s a substantial investment in the infrastructure and those costs have to be considered,” Hovland said.

Recent Stories

Case highlights debate over ‘life of the mother’ exception

Supreme Court split on Idaho abortion ban in emergency rooms

Donald Payne Jr., who filled father’s seat in the House, dies at 65

Biden signs foreign aid bill, says weapons to be sent to allies within hours

Airlines must report fees, issue prompt refunds, new rules say

Capitol Ink | B Movie