COVID-19: America's Looming Election Crisis

Planning now is essential to ensure the legitimacy of November’s elections is not impacted by COVID-19, as vulnerabilities are becoming ever more apparent if voting in person is restricted.

Expert comment Updated 4 November 2020 Published 8 April 2020 2 minute READ

Lindsay Newman

Former Senior Research Fellow, US and the Americas Programme

Roadside voting in Madison, Wisconsin in April 2020. Because of coronavirus, the number of polling places was drastically reduced. Photo by Andy Manis/Getty Images.

Roadside voting in Madison, Wisconsin in April 2020. Because of coronavirus, the number of polling places was drastically reduced. Photo by Andy Manis/Getty Images.

The COVID-19 epidemic has hit every aspect of American life. The upcoming November general elections will not be immune to the virus’ impact and may be scheduled to happen while the pandemic remains active, or has returned.

There is a danger the epidemic forces change to the way voting takes place this fall, amplifying risks around election security and voter suppression that ultimately undermine the integrity of the elections.

This is further highlighted by the US Supreme Court’s last-minute ruling along ideological lines to restrict an extension on the absentee voting period in the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary despite the level of infections in the state, forcing voters into a trade-off between their health and their right to vote. The US could be thrown into a political crisis in addition to the health and economic crises it already faces.

Bipartisan sentiment

While France, Chile and Bolivia have already postponed elections in the wake of COVID-19, there is a bipartisan sentiment that the US elections should be held as scheduled on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This is enshrined not only in America’s sense of itself – having weathered elections during a civil war, a world war and heightened terrorist alert before – but also in its federal law since 1845.

Despite increasing appetite for federal elections to go ahead in November, there are serious vulnerabilities, which are already becoming visible as connections are drawn between mail-in voting and voter fraud, greater voter access and disadvantages for the Republican party, and city polling closures and Democratic voter suppression.

Concerns around voting access have gained the most attention. If voting in-person is untenable or risky (especially for vulnerable health populations), voters must have alternative means to cast ballots.

During negotiations for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives proposed $4 billion in state election grants and a nationally-mandated period for early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.

But the final CARES Act sidestepped the access question and stripped funding to $400 million for election security grants to ‘prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle’. Without knowing exactly what is in store from a cyber-threat perspective, the actual cost for basic election security upgrades is estimated to be $2.1billion. And that is a pre-COVID-19 calculation.

With social-distanced voters likely to be getting more election information than ever from social media, information security is critical to prevent influence from untrustworthy sources. And opportunities for cyber intrusions are likely to increase as states transition to greater virtual registration, plus absentee and mail-in balloting.

This will open new doors on well-documented, existing voter suppression efforts. With the Supreme Court clawing back the Voting Rights Act in 2013 - allowing certain states to make changes to election and voting laws without federal pre-clearance - heightened election security requirements, such as exact match campaigns and voter purges, have been used to justify voter suppression.

As more vote remotely in the remaining primaries (many now rescheduled for 2 June) and the November general elections, the added burden on states around verification will only increase temptation to set aside ‘non-compliant’ ballots. Especially as some in the Republican Party, including Donald Trump, have advocated a contested view that higher turnout favours the Democratic Party.

A fundamental principle of US democracy is that losers of elections respect the result, but history shows that election results have been contested. In 2000, it took weeks for a result to be confirmed in the presidential election. More recently, in the 2018 race for governor in Georgia, allegations of voter suppression raised questions about the validity of the eventual result.

Without proper access, security, and verification the electoral process – whenever it takes place – will become vulnerable to questions of integrity. The federal response to the initial spread of COVID-19 saw costly delays which pushed the US into a public health crisis and economic contraction.

Any narrative thread of election illegitimacy with November’s elections will further pull apart the fabric of a country already frayed by coronavirus. Federal and state authorities must start planning now for how the US will hold elections in the midst - or immediate aftermath - of COVID-19.