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The Route to a Safe, Accessible and Fair November Election

Governments need to move promptly to change rules and procedures to maximize eligible-voter participation while safeguarding health and protecting the election's integrity.

A long line of Milwaukee County residents wait to vote Tuesday, April, 7, 2020
In Wisconsin, a long line of Milwaukee County residents wait to vote Tuesday, April, 7, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pat A. Robinson/Zuma Press/TNS
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the chaotic primary-election experiences of Georgia, Wisconsin and other states are troubling signs for the November general election. Without immediate action, an accessible and fair national election is at risk.

American democracy, particularly in a time of crisis, is strongest when its citizens actively participate in and have confidence in the integrity of the election process. Our national goal should be to maximize the participation of eligible voters while ensuring an election system that prevents fraud. Every vote must be counted accurately and as quickly as possible, with the results perceived as fair and legitimate.

In a new white paper, fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration are urging state, local and federal governments to act promptly to improve electoral processes to allow every eligible citizen to vote in the 2020 elections while protecting the integrity of the election process and the health of all participants.

These academy fellows recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to adapting longstanding election procedures to this new COVID-19 reality, but numerous components of the election administration system will need to be revised. Requirements that may have previously made sense will need to be changed or temporarily waived. Current election laws, regulations and practices should be adjusted as needed to maximize voter participation and social equity, along with financial and administrative practicality.

Continuing concerns regarding the pandemic and the possibility of a second wave in the fall, if not addressed, will significantly reduce voter participation in the November elections. Overly limited voter-registration opportunities will also contribute to decreased voter turnout. The impact may be particularly great among groups like the elderly and minority communities, who are not only at increased risk of the disease but also are least likely to be comfortable with or have access to technology for registering to vote or requesting ballots online.

Since elections are administered primarily by state and local governments, they must take the lead in identifying and implementing responses to these challenges. We believe that the following steps must be taken to help ensure an accessible and safe election:

First-time voters will need additional opportunities to register. Online registration and same-day registration can be used to facilitate the process.

In-person voting on Election Day will and should continue, but with additional safeguards. An adequate number of polling places must be accessible to the voters who rely on them most. Additional recruitment efforts for election workers will be required, and special precautions will need to be taken for the safety of voters, staff and poll workers. Polling sites will need to be configured in accordance with safety guidelines. Without an adequate number of polling sites, physical distancing and other health-related requirements will significantly slow the voting process and lead to long lines that discourage voting.

Early voting should be expanded. States and localities need to ensure more accessible locations and additional early voting days. These changes will help ensure that citizens can vote while maintaining the necessary physical distancing.

Other voting options need to be carefully explored and implemented to the greatest extent possible. These include expanded use of absentee voting, including universal no-excuse absentee voting, as well as all-mail voting. Policymakers must evaluate alternatives to in-person voting through a social equity lens, given that they may affect voters differently.

As critical as the actions of state and local governments will be to ensuring that November's voting goes smoothly and democratically, however, the federal government must be an active partner. Because funding for state and local election operations is limited even in the best of times, Congress will need to appropriate more funds to assist states and localities. In addition, all relevant federal agencies, including the Election Assistance Commission and the Postal Service, need to be ready to perform their responsibilities in this new environment.

Fully informing potential voters on the new voting procedures is essential. Enhanced public education will be required to maximize participation, manage expectations and instill public confidence. Public officials and election administrators should emphasize the nonpartisan nature of the changes, and otherwise strengthen voter confidence in the process and the legitimacy of the outcomes.

Educating voters about election changes isn't a job for government alone. The media and civil-society organizations need to be actively engaged. Public and nonprofit organizations, working with both traditional and social media, need to develop and share clear, nonpartisan information with the public about the election-system changes for the 2020 elections and their options as voters.

Taken together, these actions will ensure that voters can safely and fully participate in this most vital democratic process. Preparations must begin now. We have no time to lose.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration
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