The date of the US presidential election is enshrined in its constitution, with its next election due to take place on 3 November 2020. This means it cannot easily postpone the election, as has been done in other countries. For example, in March 2020, England postponed its local and mayoral elections for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Whilst the pandemic has not affected the date of the election, it may affect how Americans choose to vote.

According to data collected by the US Elections Project, more than one million Americans have already cast their ballots in advance of the election. Estimates suggest that 80 million Americans could vote by mail this year, more than twice the number that voted in this way in 2016.

The US Election Assistance Commission found that around 59% of voters cast their ballots in person at a polling place in the 2016 election. The remaining 41% voted in one of three alternative ways:

  • Absentee ballot (requested postal vote).
  • Mail ballot (automatically sent to all voters in the jurisdiction).
  • Early voting (in-person, before election day).

Voting laws are set by each state, and rules can change from election to election. For example, a recent court ruling in Pennsylvania allows mail votes received up to three days after election day to be counted, as long as the votes are postmarked by 8pm on election day, a move supported by the Democratic governor. In Texas, the Republican governor recently closed all but one mail-in ballot drop-off point in each county in order to “stop illegal voting”.

These examples reflect the two parties’ approach to voting at the election this year. Data from the US Elections Project shows that, as of 30 September 2020, registered Democrats have requested over 8m more mail ballots than registered Republicans.

Republican President Donald Trump, who voted by mail in the Florida primary, has consistently questioned the security of mail voting. During the first presidential debate on 29 September 2020, President Trump stated that the use of mail ballots “is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen”. Democrat candidate former Vice-President Joe Biden has stated that voting by mail is “safe and secure”.

What impact has Covid-19 had on states’ voting laws?

According to the Washington Post, 23 states and Washington DC have made changes to their voting procedures in response to Covid-19. A mail or absentee ballot is available to at least 84% of American voters for the 2020 election. Policies vary state by state:

  • In 24 states, a voter can request to vote by mail with either no need to give a reason or they can use Covid-19 as an acceptable reason.
  • In 12 states, a voter receives a vote-by-mail application automatically.
  • In 9 states and in Washington DC, a voter will receive a ballot automatically.
  • In 5 states, an excuse other than Covid-19 is needed to be eligible to receive a mail ballot.

Four states and Washington DC have introduced automatic ballot distribution for the first time this election. Responding to this change, on 10 September 2020, President Donald Trump tweeted:

Sending out 80 million ballots to people who aren’t even asking for a ballot is unfair and a total fraud in the making.

Reuters analysed the president’s claim. It estimated that there were around 44.2m registered voters in the ten states that are sending out ballots automatically. Additionally, Reuters claimed that election fraud is “vanishingly rare”.

Covid-19 and state primaries

In early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic caused an “unprecedented disruption” to state primaries, held to elect the Democratic party’s nominee. Many state officials have stated that their experiences in primary elections have helped to prepare them for the November election.

Research carried out by FiveThirtyEight, a political and statistical analysis blog, examined voting activity in each of the states that held primaries. It outlined some key findings that could influence how states organise their efforts next time:

  • Although absentee voting has increased, most voters still preferred in-person voting.
  • Turnout has not been depressed by the pandemic.
  • Despite problems in the early elections held (such as those in Wisconsin), elections held later in the year experienced less disruption.

The experiences of states’ primary elections have led to conflicting predictions about how voting might operate in November. Reports have suggested that Democrats have pivoted their message towards in-person voting again, due to the number of mail-in ballots that were disqualified during the primaries. In contrast, some Republican activists have increased their efforts to promote mail-in voting to their voter base.

Case study: Wisconsin

American Progress, which describes itself as a non-partisan think-tank, called the Wisconsin election “chaotic”.

More than 1 million absentee ballots were cast in its primary held in April 2020. In 2016, this number was 140,000. It was reported that around 9,000 ballots were never sent to those who requested them and that more than 23,000 absentee ballots were disqualified. Reports also showed long queues at polling places on election day after many polling stations were closed due to a lack of poll workers. In Milwaukee, for example, 180 polling stations were reduced to 5.

Analysis of Wisconsin’s primary by American Progress found that despite the state’s useful voting policies, such as early and no-excuse absentee voting, “election processes can break down easily in the midst of a pandemic”.

Case study: Massachusetts

On 1 September 2020, Massachusetts held its state primary election, to choose each party’s candidates for election to Congress in November. The Boston Globe reported that “by most accounts” the election was “a historic success”.

A record number of votes were cast in the primary election and officials believe that turnout could double again for the election in November. The election faced a few problems, for example thousands of uncounted mail ballots were found in one district two days after the election. The ballots were able to be added to the final total after the Secretary of State sought a court order to allow some districts to keep counting after election day. The town clerk in the district has since resigned.

Despite a few issues, most election results were announced the day after the election. State officials have so far not received any reports of voter fraud. Officials have said that the election experience was overall “very positive” and they are already sharing advice on improvements to make before November.

Can the United States Postal Service cope with the increase in demand?

In August, it was reported that recent changes made to the United States Postal Service (USPS) were leading to “major delays” to Americans’ mail. A new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, took over operation of the USPS in June 2020 and implemented changes such as reducing overtime for workers and limiting post office hours. He also gave an instruction to leave mail at processing plants if it meant carriers would leave late.

Mr DeJoy, who has financially contributed to President Trump’s election campaign and the Republican party, said these changes were needed to improve the efficiency of the service and to save money. Due to Mr DeJoy’s links to the president, some Democrats have said that the changes amount to sabotage to ensure the President wins re-election.

In August 2020, Mr DeJoy released a statement that any additional changes would be suspended, “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail”.

The USPS had previously published a legal briefing that stated:

Even if every registered voter in the United States used a mail-in ballot in the 2020 election, those ballots would represent only a fraction of the total mailpieces that the USPS processes each day, on average, and would pale in comparison to spikes in mail volume that the USPS handles every winter holiday season.

Image by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.