Preparing for Elections in the Shadow of COVID-19

So long as Covid-19 continues to circulate, this election season is going to look radically different. Registration drives will be upended by social distancing measures, poll workers will have to guard against contagion, and fear of the virus will drive unprecedented demand to vote from home.

Massachusetts needs to adapt its voting rules quickly to accommodate these shifts, allowing time to make logistical arrangements and communicate new rules to voters.

For this research report, the Center for State Policy Analysis has worked with election experts to map the full range of potential approaches so policymakers understand the options and tradeoffs involved.

Some changes are endorsed by a clear consensus of experts, but often the “correct” approach depends on a balance between competing interests.

We find that:

  • Demand for absentee voting and vote-by-mail will likely be enormous, requiring dramatic upgrades to state and municipal capacity. Centralizing parts of this process could help alleviate the burden on cities and towns and reduce the risk of local bottlenecks.
  • There is no definitive answer to the question of whether Massachusetts should automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters, only a complex trade-off between expanded opportunity and election security.
  • Polling places need to remain open as an option for all voters, including those with unstable housing, individuals with disabilities, and minority groups that have historically shown a preference for in-person voting. Allowing early voting for the September primary could also improve access.
  • The cost of these changes could be substantial, particularly for cities and towns. However, Massachusetts has access to significant federal funding, including a large amount of unused money from the 2002 Help America Vote Act.
  • Focusing on temporary changes — just for this unusual cycle — could help build consensus, though permanent alterations make sense where there is already strong agreement and clear long-term need.
  • Being overwhelmed by one crisis doesn’t immunize Massachusetts from other risks, and contingency planning needs to account for the threat of voter suppression, disinformation, and beyond.