State of Elections

William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

Tag: voting and COVID (page 1 of 3)

Did the Scope of the Texas Governor’s Authority to Suspend Election Law Under the Texas Disaster Act Expand to Include Policy Unrelated to Mitigating an Emergency?

By: Sarah Depew

On March 13, 2020, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation declaring a state of disaster due to the COVID-19 pandemic, triggering gubernatorial emergency powers authorized in the Texas Disaster Act of 1975. The Texas Disaster Act gives the Governor the authority to “suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute. . . . if strict compliance with the provisions, orders, or rules would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.” Using this authority, Gov. Abbott issued a proclamation on July 27, 2020, to expand early voting and suspend portions of the Texas Election Code to allow voters to deliver a marked ballot in person to the early voting clerk’s office before or on Election Day. An “early voting clerk’s office” is understood in both the Texas Election Code and the July Proclamation to include more than the voting clerk’s main office, but also, any satellite offices or locations. For example, Harris County’s Election Administration has ten offices serving 4.7 million residents across 1,777 square miles.

The July Proclamation was not controversial. The order stated that strict compliance with statute governing the return of marked ballots would hinder the state’s coping with COVID—an objective that is indisputably permissible under the Texas Disaster Act.

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Indiana’s Noon Absentee Deadline: Election Officials Report Slow Counting, but No Major Problems

By Emma Merrill

Many Indiana voters were alarmed by Indiana’s voting procedures during the state’s June 2, 2020 primary election—Indiana’s first attempt at a statewide election during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I just got completely disenfranchised,” one voter reported after confronting a polling place that lacked the resources to deal with unprecedent mail-in voter turnout. Another Hoosier described Indiana’s election system as “completely overwhelmed.”

Indiana state law mandates that mail-in ballots must be received by noon on Election Day to be counted. Ind. Code § 3-11.5-4-3. In the run-up to Indiana’s primary, Indiana Democrats lobbied the Republican state administration to extend Indiana’s noon deadline for absentee ballots—to no avail. While Republican Governor Eric Holcomb did issue an Executive Order that shifted the primary date from May 3 to June 2, state Republicans refused to change the absentee ballot deadline’s noon requirement. Ultimately, over ten times as many Indiana voters used mail-in absentee ballots compared to the 2016 presidential primary. The surge in absentee voting resulted in processing and delivery delays for approximately 1800 voters’ mail-in ballots in Marion County, home to a significant community of minority voters. The state election system failed to cope with the pandemic, and voters were disenfranchised as a result.

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The Cost of an Absentee Ballot

By Timmer McCroskey

Be honest, when was the last time you went to the post office? For me, it’s been at least six months since I physically went into any post office. With the ability to buy postage labels online and drop off packages in blue boxes located throughout my town, I rarely need to go into a physical location. Next question, do you have stamps on hand? I do, but only because I try to send my Grandma a card every month. For many people, especially in rural Wyoming, the post office isn’t a frequent stop on the errand list and not everybody has a reason (or funds) to purchase stamps. However, to mail in an absentee ballot in Wyoming, you are required to place the correct amount of postage on the envelope. Wyoming is one of 33 states that does not pay for the return postage of an absentee ballot.

mailbox

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Ballot Collection Limitation Law Struck Down by Montana Courts

By Cody McCracken

As occurs every few years, this past November millions of people cast their votes for a wide range of offices. However, a major difference this year was that many of these voters cast their ballots in a way they may have never done so before—by mail. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced nearly all states to expand their absentee voting and early voting procedures. Yet, even before COVID, voters in Montana routinely voted well before election day.

While not a fully mail-in voting state, such as Washington and Oregon, Montana has robust mail and early voting accommodations that a majority of voters take advantage of. In Montana’s 2018 general election, 73 percent of the votes cast were by absentee ballot sent in before election day.

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Don’t Get Caught Naked: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules That Mail-In Ballots Without A Secrecy Envelope (“Naked Ballots”) Won’t Be Counted

By Jessica Washington

Ever heard of a naked ballot? It’s when a completed mail-in ballot is put into the paid postage envelope without first being put into a “secrecy envelope.” And the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently ruled that naked ballots are to be thrown out regardless of the validity of the ballot.

There is a provision in the Pennsylvania Election Code that requires mail-in ballots to first be put into a secrecy envelope and then that secrecy envelope containing the ballot will be put into a regular mailing envelope which has identifying information for the voter to fill out. It’s not uncommon for a voter—especially a voter voting by mail for the first time—to forget to put their ballot inside the secrecy envelope before putting it into the mailing envelope. But this common mistake could potentially disenfranchise 100,000 eligible voters whose ballot is correct save the secrecy envelope issue.

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To Vote or Die: How the Indigenous Peoples of Alaska Fought an Impossible Choice

By Sayo Ayeomoni and Cameron Newton

When a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that cloaks the world in uncertainty, upends the financial status of millions, and causes the death of roughly 239,000 Americans reaches an election cycle, it becomes a given that practices created for and enforced in times of normalcy be adapted for such extreme circumstances. Given that voting procedures are developed on a state-by-state basis, fifty different approaches to voting in a pandemic have necessarily been developed. Since thirty-four states are allowing voters to obtain an absentee ballot either due to coronavirus-related fears or without providing an excuse, rules about how those absentee ballots are filled out have naturally come into question. In Alaska, those questions have emerged with great focus centered on the Indigenous peoples who make up 15.6% of the state’s population.

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What’s in a Name?: Pennsylvania Requires Signatures For Mail-In Ballots To Be Counted And Decides Not To Throw Out Ballots For Signature Verification Issues

By Jessica Washington

Pennsylvania requires a signature for all mail-in ballots. The voter’s signature must match the voter’s permanent registration card.  If the signature matches, the voter’s ballot is counted. If the signature does not match, the voter’s ballot is discarded.

Prior to this year, signatures for mail-in ballots have been an issue. They are poised to become an even greater problem as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic taking the world by storm. As a result of the pandemic, many people have begun to work from home, had their groceries delivered to their door, and have limited their need to go out in accordance with health guidelines. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever are expected to vote through mail-in ballots. This increases the chance that more ballots than ever will be discounted as a result of rejected signatures.

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Lawsuit Filed Over New York State Ballot Postmark Requirements

By: Blake Vaisey

New York is once again facing issues with its mail-in ballot system. A lawsuit filed on September 11 by, among others, Emily Gallagher, a candidate running for the New York State Assembly’s 50th District, claims that potentially thousands of ballots are going to be thrown out in future elections do to New York State’s postmark requirements, a problem that is compounded by the slowdown that the United States Postal Service has been facing in recent months. 

The lawsuit is related to NY Elec. L. §8-412, which requires absentee ballots to have a postmark from the postal service showing the date on which the ballot was sent, and rejects ballots postmarked any time after the day of the election. 

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Mississippi: Masks, Mandates, and Mail-In Voting

By Catrina Curtis

Mississippi finds itself in an odd position going into this important Election Day amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: it is the only state to have allowed its statewide mask mandate to expire and the only state that is not offering early or mail-in voting for all of its citizens. 

The Magnolia State is one of only five states that will not offer no-excuse absentee voting for this November’s election, even as the vast majority of states have expanded their mail-in voting options due to health and safety concerns. However, among the five states not offering no-excuse absentee voting, Mississippi is the only state also not offering early voting. Although the Mississippi Legislature passed an amendment this summer to allow for those quarantining due to COVID-19 or those caring for someone with COVID-19 to vote by mail, the Mississippi Supreme Court recently held that the amendment does not also allow for those with pre-existing conditions at a greater risk of COVID-19 to vote absentee, striking down a lower interpretation of the amendment that was appealed by the Secretary of State. 

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A Bumpy Road to Voting in Wisconsin: Absentee Ballot Issues

By: Brianna Mashel

This election cycle has been turned on its head by safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to recent reporting by the Pew Research Center, about four-in-ten registered voters (39%) say they plan to cast their vote by absentee or mail-in ballot this year (or already have done so), compared with 33% who say they plan to vote in person on November 3, and 21% who have voted in person or plan to vote in person at an early voting location before Election Day. In fact, even before the onset of the pandemic, voters casting mail-in ballots increased nearly threefold between 1996 and 2016 – from 7.8% to nearly 21% – and the Census Bureau’s voter supplement data found seven-in-ten adults favor allowing any voter to vote by mail. Nonetheless, there is significant variation from one state to another on the handling of absentee and mail-in voting.  A case in point is Wisconsin, which has opted to rely on its existing absentee voting system even though it is currently one of the nation’s hot spots for COVID-19, with hospitals treating a record high number of patients with the disease.

In Wisconsin, absentee voting is relatively easy. Any registered voter is eligible to request an absentee ballot and voters do not need a reason or excuse to vote absentee. A ballot request and a copy of an acceptable photo ID with the applicant’s request must be received by the clerk no later than 5:00 p.m. on the Thursday before Election Day. The completed absentee ballot must be delivered no later than 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. This year, as many as two-thirds of all ballots, or roughly 2 million, are projected to be cast absentee. Although this process seems simple, Wisconsin voters have already experienced bumps in the road – literally.

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