The shortages will be particularly acute in states that refuse to expand mail voting. Many states that temporarily loosened their requirements for absentee ballots during the primary season are poised to return to their pre-pandemic rules in November. By offering no-excuse absentee voting, Kentucky encouraged massive turnout in mail balloting that relieved pressure on the limited number of polling places. In an unprecedented move, Ohio conducted its primary entirely by mail. Neither of these states, though, currently plans to extend these emergency measures for the general election.
So what is to be done? First, states need more money. Congress appropriated $400 million in the original CARES Act for election assistance, but five times that will be necessary to buy the equipment, rent the facilities, and pay the personnel necessary to conduct voting properly during this pandemic.
Second, states need to conduct a massive outreach effort to recruit new poll workers and find new polling locations. Facebook recently announced a substantial effort to register voters and move them to mail balloting. The company should also help in the recruitment of poll workers by giving free advertising to local election officials for that purpose. Big-box retailers, such as Walmart and Costco, should make their facilities available for Election Day as well, given that they are uniquely situated to ensure social distancing for the vote. States should make Election Day a school holiday to ensure that those buildings will remain available for polling and to free up teachers to serve as poll workers. Indeed, all federal, state, and local employees should be given paid leave to serve as poll workers, and college students should be excused from class to do the same.
Third, voter education for November will be key. Political scientists have long known that the farther a voter must travel to a polling place, the less likely that person is to turn out. Even under the best circumstances, the number of polling places will drop substantially this year. That will discourage turnout. Some voters will show up to their previous polling places, learn they are no longer operating, and give up without searching for the appropriate ones. Polling-place consolidations often do not affect communities equally, and those deprived of nearby options will be less likely to vote.
Finally, election officials will need to do all they can to assure voters that casting a ballot in person will be safe. This includes adopting and publicizing sanitary protocols well before the election. Campaigns and election officials also must be careful about their messaging about voting by mail. Signaling that mail voting is the only safe way to vote will depress turnout, especially among those communities predisposed to polling-place voting.
The logistical challenges facing election officials seem overwhelming right now. But other countries, such as South Korea, which held its national election on April 15, have demonstrated that people can safely vote in person during a pandemic. That requires a concerted national commitment, and in the United States, time is running out.