Managing Safe and Secure Elections During COVID-19

The complexity of voting during a pandemic has created an unexpected set of logistical and expense challenges for local governments.

By Tad McGalliard, director, ICMA Research and Development | Aug 12, 2020 | BLOG POST

Comedian George Carlin said, “You lose the right to complain if you don’t vote.”  While that may be true in normal times, the added complexity of voting during a pandemic has created an unexpected set of logistical and expense challenges that U.S. local governments have not had to deal with in more than a century. As a result of COVID-19, more than the usual amount of complaining is to be expected. 

Democracy at Work: Election Management 

The peaceful transition of power through elections is a hallmark of stable democracies and democratic republics around the world. Supporting the right to vote requires a sizeable investment of human, facility, and technology resources to ensure that elections are well-managed so that accurate results can be counted and shared. 

Elections in the United States are a complicated, decentralized dance of federal, state, and local responsibilities. Under Article 1 of the Constitution, states are responsible for overseeing their elections – even federal elections. As such, each state enacts a range of legislation to govern how elections are administered. However, county and municipal officials bear the responsibility for managing the election process. Those local responsibilities may lie with an individual, a board or commission, or a combination of different organizations and individuals. Twenty-two states designate an individual to serve as the administrator in charge of elections. Several states name specific individuals to oversee elections in some jurisdictions, while others are managed by a board/commission. Some larger jurisdictions have an election administrator position, while others assign the responsibilities to the city or county clerk's (or similar position) office. Ten states have “boards of elections” that take ownership of local election administration, while eighteen states share election management between different local offices.

City and county clerks are the most common local officials responsible for overseeing and coordinating elections. Key tasks include maintaining voter registration and eligibility; appointment and training of election staff, poll workers, and judges; and the logistical planning of in-person and remote voting procedures. In those states where residents vote almost entirely by mail (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah), clerks manage logic and audit testing of ballot scanning technology and 24/7 surveillance of ballot drop-box locations in addition to maintaining in-person voting locations. At in-person polling places across the country on the day of elections, there are many state and federal guidelines to be enforced, including mitigation of voter fraud or suppression, as well as the more mundane worries of what to do if a voting machine breaks down. And while the concerns of the past still exist, new ones have given rise to a whole new level of complexity and concern. 

Ghosts in the Machine 

Over the past few years, heightened concerns about the cyber resiliency of the nation’s voting infrastructure have plagued U.S. elections. In January 2017, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) designated elections as critical systems for maintaining American democracy and added them to the list of “functions” essential to the country’s security.  The agency released a planning guidebook for local election managers to use in case of heightened threats or actual attempts at cyberattacks on voting infrastructure.  The guide includes templates for contact lists, incident notification, and what to look for as “symptoms of abnormal voter system behaviors or activities.” Cyber threats are here to stay, and local election officials have access to an increasing array of support, guidance, and tools from federal and state agencies to protect them from attacks targeting election infrastructure.   

However, as 2019 ended, ghosts in the machine were not the only challenge lurking just over the horizon for election administrations. As questions about collusion and foreign influence of U.S. elections slipped below the fold and behind the curtain, the next big crisis for managers, including those that oversee elections, was emerging half a world away. 

Keeping Poll Workers and Voters Safe During a Pandemic 

As 2020 unfolded, few, if any, local election boards or county clerks were thinking about how to manage a fair and transparent voting process during the uncertainty and unknowns that a novel coronavirus presents. In fact, local election officials have had to be nimble and responsive since Americans have been voting throughout the Covid-19 pandemic during presidential primaries and special elections to fill vacancies of all kinds. It has not always been smooth as evidenced by longer lines and wait times to vote in person, delays in results due to sometimes overwhelming returns of absentee ballots, and fear by election judges, who tend to be older Americans, of exposure to the virus.  

Various resources and guides have been produced to help local election officials manage a unique situation. Given that election policies in the United States are established by federal and state guidelines, there are only so many steps local authorities can take to improve safety. The CDC notes that: 

“The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. Elections with only in-person voting on a single day are higher risk for COVID-19 spread because there will be larger crowds and longer wait times. Lower risk election polling settings include those with (a) a wide variety of voting options; (b) long voting periods (more days and more hours); and (c) any other feasible options for reducing the number of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations at the same time.” 

Figure 1: Practices from the CDC’s Considerations for Election Polling Locations and Voters 

Encouraging anyone who is sick or that has had recent close contact with a person with COVID-19 to stay home 

Provide 60% alcohol hand sanitizer at each step in the voting process where voters interact with poll workers, while also ensuring that the product does not damage voting machines or ballots 

Recommend and reinforce the use of cloth face coverings recognizing that, for purposes of identification or for person’s hard of hearing, some accommodations should be made to ensure that those individuals’ right to properly vote are not infringed 

Buy your supplies now and ensure adequate inventory during election day 

Post informative signs in highly visible areas to ensure that pedestrian flow and expected behaviors are clearly communicated 

Have plans to manage social distancing for people in lines and clearly direct how to enter and exit a facility 

Make plans to have assigned personnel to clean and disinfect commonly used surfaces such as door handles, pens, tables, and clipboards 

If a public restroom is available, ensure that it is regularly cleaned with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended disinfectants 

Clean and disinfect voting equipment as often as possible following manufacturer’s recommendations 

Adjust ventilation of the voting facility, if possible, to promote as much circulation of outdoor air as possible 

Manage crowds and lines with modified layouts and procedures, barriers, and signage 

Protect poll workers with PPE, including plexiglass shields and social distance floor markings 

The CDC guidance includes tips and recommendations that are, by now, familiar to most local government managers. The list of practices in Figure 1 offers a summary of ideas, but all managers should review the CDC’s full guidance document on voting and elections with their jurisdiction’s officials. 

The difficulty of maximizing legitimate voter enfranchisement--always a concern of election administrators--is substantially elevated during a pandemic. How can officials ensure that people with symptoms or under quarantine can vote, without exposing others to the coronavirus? How can the right to vote for vulnerable populations, including the elderly or those with preexisting conditions, be preserved with minimized risks and heightened safety procedures? How do we protect the tens of thousands of poll workers and election judges that will be interacting with voters on election day?  

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) offers other ideas for election day innovations. Localities might consider the creation of “super centers” or large voting locations to centralize more resources and to enable greater social distancing. Potential options for super centers might include football fields and stadiums, vacant and available indoor structures such as malls or warehouses or even parking garages. Alternative voting locations will present many challenges, such as travel distances, accessibility, electricity, heating and cooling, and more. Several NBA teams have offered the use of their facilities as potential polling places

Another option is to set up ticketing systems, such as low-tech options like those commonly seen at a deli counter and a local department of motor vehicles, as well as mobile tech options so that a voter receives a text when it is his or her time to join the voting line. Other ideas offered include a reservation system and an inclusive general drive through option for everyone, not just those that may have symptoms of the coronavirus. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has consolidated a substantial amount of information for state and local officials, including resources for polling places, polling officials, voters, usage of CARES Act funding on election management, and more. The EAC also supplies guidance on usage of the $400 million in emergency funding that has been distributed based on requests and matching amounts from state and territorial election authorities. 

Harris County, Texas, one of the largest jurisdictions in the United States, is hoping to provide November voters with a finger cover if they are worried about touching voting equipment. Harris County has also created a website and communication campaign to try to reach as many of the 2.4 million voters in the district as possible.  

To ensure voter enfranchisement, some jurisdictions may be considering drive-through or special parking and voting zones for elderly populations or those that may be positive for COVID-19 but well enough to participate with a modified in-person voting approach. 

One of the biggest problems states and localities might face is the lack of polling personnel and election judges. In July, election officials sounded the alarm as older, higher-risk personnel opted out of this year’s elections. Estimates in Maryland suggest that nearly 14,000 vacancies need to be filled to ensure a smooth election in November. Election administrators in other states have also expressed concerns that the typical demographic of retired persons working as polling personnel are planning to sit out the election of 2020 due to fears of exposure to the virus.  Davidson County, Tennessee, has created an online training video for poll workers that is available on YouTube.   

In some states that allow vote-by-mail or have liberal absentee ballot laws, local officials expect a massive increase in the number of votes cast that way. Such a shift in how the vote occurs requires realignment of staff, facility needs, time, and PPE and cleaning supplies to ensure public health safety guidelines are met. Overall, personnel and facility needs may decrease in a state if additional mail-in voting is allowed, but for many places, the transition from in-person to a hybrid approach may be difficult. Given the expected increase in people using Pennsylvania’s “no excuse absentee ballot” and mail options, election officials there are concerned about their ability to count and certify all ballots on election day.  A case study has been unfolding in New York City since June 2020, where more than 400,000 mailed ballots were received for the 12th district congressional seat primary election.  More than a month after election day, 65,000 mail-in ballots are still to be counted and certified in a very tight race

The July 2020 Michigan Public Policy Survey provides timely insight from local officials about elections in the pandemic. In general, more than 60% of city, county, and township officials say that “no-excuse absentee voting has positive impacts on the administration of elections, while only 14% suggest negative impacts.  Michigan offers same-day voter registration, which many clerks and local officials expect to be problematic in normal circumstances and much more so in a pandemic.  Many managers, clerks, mayors, and council members expressed concern about a new dynamic of absentee mail-in ballots, including costs and staffing to handle what is expected to be a record number of votes cast in this manner. Several quotes from the survey are representative of the findings: 

  • Depending on COVID-19, there could be a negative impact if the election was by absentee ballot only. The township clerk would have to take care of all the absentee ballots by herself; this would be a lot of work for one person. 
  • In the era of COVID, the possibility of greatly increased absentee turnout will be difficult with the current level of resources. 
  • My election workers do not want to work live polls because they are worried about being infected. 

Keeping the Trolls at Bay 

In one chapter of The Hobbit, the dwarves on their way to the Lonely Mountain are captured by a group of trolls intending to have a nice dinner. Using voice mimicry, Gandalf, “kept the trolls bickering and quarrelling until the light came and made an end of them.” National security and election officials have been warning for years that open democratic countries are exceptionally vulnerable to misinformation and deception designed to keep the electorate "bickering and quarrelling" such that the legitimacy of election results are questioned.  

There is substantial concern that election day may turn into election week as millions more voters take advantage of absentee and mail-in options, while election officials struggle to find enough poll workers to certify, count, and report results from the flood of paper ballots that are expected. While much of the attention will likely focus on messaging from state and national elections officials, local governments should have clear and consistent messaging about the voting process, especially if any issues, challenges, or irregularities are observed or perceived.  

Elections Around the World 

Beginning in March 2020, many countries have held national and subnational (regional and municipal) elections during the pandemic, including some at the very beginning of the viral breakout from China all the way through mid-July 2020. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) many countries have moved forward with their elections; however, more than 50 others have been postponed. One major test was the Republic of Korea’s April 15, 2020, election for the country’s national assembly. Key elements of the election included encouragement of early voting; enfranchisement of people quarantined or sick with COVID-19; extreme safety measures at polling places, and over-communication with the public to ensure as much understanding of how to vote in extraordinary circumstances. 

Elections in other countries featured innovations as well. For example, in France, vulnerable populations or others that were quarantined were able to ask that poll workers or the police bring the capability of voting to the voter’s location. In Canada, the Shoal Lake tribe used plastic sheeting and a slit only large enough for a ballot to receive and cast ballots. The presidential election in Poland ensured that poll workers were outfitted in proper PPE that was required to be changed at least every hour. Case studies and information from around the world can be found at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.  

Voting While Complaining 

The challenges of local governance are many and have been growing for the past few generations of city and county managers. As an essential and critical function of local governments in the United States, election management in 2020 promises to be unlike any that local governments have administered in a long while. Many organizations have created guidance and other tools for election administration in pandemic conditions.  Some of the key ones that we have identified are listed in Figure 2. 

Figure 2: Additional Resources for Local Election Administration 

Centers for Disease Control Guidance on Election Polling Locations

U.S. Election Assistance Commission Disaster Preparedness Website for Elections 

Innovative Practices and Election Management During the Covid-19 Pandemic 

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency’s Website and Guidance on Election security during Covid-19 Pandemic 

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s July 2020 guide on protecting elections from cyber-attacks and incident management 

Case study on how the Republic of Korea managed their elections earlier in 2020 during the pandemic

International Foundation for Electoral Systems is a good resource for research and ideas on voting in all parts of the world 

National League of Cities, Cities Vote program has created a resource list for local governments about voting during COVID-19 

Cleaning guidelines for commonly used voting machines have been consolidated by the U.S Election Assistance Commission 

According to a Pew Research Center study, more than two-thirds of Americans expect the voting process to be disrupted by the ongoing pandemic. As social media and the 24-hour commentary cycle amplify the cacophony of voices on all issues related to governance in a pandemic, managers and local government professionals should expect a parallel to George Carlin’s quote cited in the introduction: a lot of complaining by people trying to vote.  


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