One of the most immediate repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on our politics is its impact on who votes and how they do it. Before COVID-19, there was an expectation for record-breaking turnout in 2020. After all, turnout in the 2018 midterm election hit a 100-year high. Plus, polls in 2019 and early 2020 found voters overwhelmingly engaged in the upcoming election. For example, a February Gallup survey found that 59 percent of Americans were enthusiastic about voting in November — 13 points higher than a similar point in 2016 and 12 points higher than early in the 2012 campaign.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, however, CNN polling has shown a dip in enthusiasm, from 66 percent in early March to 57 percent in early April. Of course, more Americans are worried about paying bills, getting sick, and losing their jobs than they were in early March. As such, an election in November suddenly seems much less relevant. It's also worth noting that enthusiasm to vote is still 16-points higher now than it was in July of 2016 and 9-points higher than it was in March of 2012. However, it's worth watching this "enthusiasm" number closely over these next few months to see which voters say they have become less motivated to participate in the fall election.
At this stage, we also know that voters are uncomfortable about the prospect of showing up to vote at a traditional voting location. An early March survey by Pew Research found two-thirds of Americans worried about showing up to vote in person.
Now imagine a post-Labor Day reality where:
The election the other week in Wisconsin gave us a sneak preview of what an election done under uncertain health circumstances could look like. There were mixed messages from political leaders. Confusion. Partisan fighting. Long lines of voters donning masks and gloves, waiting to vote at a limited number of open polling places.
The fact that "1.1 million mail ballots were received in time to be counted—a record for any election in the history of Wisconsin" is impressive and suggests that voters are much more adaptive than we thought possible. But, we also know that many voters were unable to vote because their ballots were never delivered or were sent to wrong addresses. Many voters simply gave up when they saw how daunting the absentee ballot process was. Plus, writes MIT professor Charles Stewart III, "The electorate in a general election is different from the primary election. It's less experienced and has more difficulties at the polls. It will be less capable of jumping through the hoops to get mail ballots, and it will be more reliant on election-day registration to be able to vote in the first place. The municipalities that run elections in Wisconsin will need to double their capacity to handle mail ballots, and ensure that the lion's share of in-person Election Day polling places are staffed. The state has time to plan and execute, but the stakes in November will be higher."
As Stewart notes, states theoretically have the time to prepare for any of the four scenarios I laid out above. But, we also know that partisanship and legislative wrangling is a big—or bigger—hurdle than the ticking clock. For example, the three most important battleground states of the midwest—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan—all have split control of government, more specifically, Democratic governors and Republican legislatures. The idea that these states could agree upon new laws before November—especially at a time when many state legislatures are trying to avoid meeting in person during this pandemic— seems unlikely.
Instead, what we will have is a hodgepodge of rules and laws, not only by state but in some cases by jurisdiction. In Wisconsin, for example, the city of Milwaukee is planning to send absentee ballot requests to every registered voter in the city. Whether other cities follow suit could have a very significant impact on turnout in the state.
There's no telling where we will be this fall either in the fight against COVID-19 or in the battle over voting access. But, it's helpful to know at least where we begin. To that end, I've put together a chart highlighting what I think are some of the most important vote-by-mail laws in the 17 states that the Cook Political Report rates as the most competitive for the fall election. This information was gleaned from The National Conference of State Legislatures and the Election Assistance Commission.
(Click here for the PDF)
Here are my takeaways:
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