Miles Rapoport on the Challenges Coronavirus Poses to Election Day

As the presidential primary season unfolds, the Ash Center sat down with Miles Rapoport, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center and former Secretary of the State for Connecticut, for a conversation about the steps that election officials can take to lessen the risks posed by coronavirus on election day 

Ash: What can election officials do now to stem the risk of exposure to voters and poll workers?   

Rapoport: For elections coming up very soon, there are limited but important things that can be done. Election officials can widely circulate absentee ballots and set up safe procedures for their return.  In some places, emergency legislation or executive order could be needed. In addition, social distancing can be practiced, like having people drop off ballots outside, limiting how many people can be inside the polling place, and keeping equipment and election personnel continuously sanitized. Polling places should be moved from nursing homes or other places where vulnerable people are likely to be. And higher pay and aggressive poll worker recruitment efforts should bring young and middle-aged people to expand and diversify what is now primarily an elderly election day workforce. 

What steps should we take to minimize the risks from another pandemic on future elections? 

I really think the coronavirus can and should be a powerful impetus for changes that are already being made, but slowly; something akin to a strong shove from behind to a person walking along; unpleasant but effective. States are moving to policies that allow voters far more options to register and to vote than they have had. One of these is a significant expansion of mail options for voting. Six states have fully or almost fully mail-in elections and a large number have eliminated restrictions on absentee ballots as well as begun sending ballots to all voters. A second is an extended period of early voting, which is now offered in 37 states. Both policies are helpful conveniences for the voter, but also significant social distancing mechanisms to prevent gluts of voters on election day. And, obviously, moving from caucuses to primaries, and utilizing ranked-choice voting which eliminates two-stage runoffs, are both in the same direction. 

Request for absentee ballot
The Federal Voting Assistance Program provides military members a chance to cast an absentee ballot (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker)

Do you think states should postpone elections in situations like this?  

Postponing elections really should be avoided at almost all costs. Policies that expand the options available to voters, interventions that make the adjustments needed with good advance planning and adequate funding and professionalism of election administrators can all make a major difference. It was notable that when Louisiana announced they are delaying the Democratic primary until June 20th, four other states with primaries with dates even closer issued a joint statement pledging to conduct their elections as planned. 

You were Secretary of the State in Connecticut. Did you ever experience anything like this? 

No, honestly, nothing remotely as challenging as what we are facing today; this pandemic is really sui generis. But we did have to take lots of steps to professionalize elections, bring people into the process, and minimize problems at the polls. These included developing a statewide computerized voter list and supplying computers to local election officials, implementing the (then) new National Voter Registation Act, and working toward election day registration so people didn’t miss deadlines or get dropped from the rolls as a result of an error. Running elections has got to be a process of continuous learning and improvement. Technology changes, voting demographics change, our responsibility to have a fully inclusive democracy requires change. One thing I do think would help a great deal is a strong federal agency that sets standards and has the ability and authority to respond to these challenges—kind of a CDC for our democracy.