Department of Political Science

King comments on how COVID-19 could impact elections

Published on Mar 12, 2020


Amid the global outbreak of COVID-19, Bridgett A. King, an assistant professor and director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Auburn University, offers her thoughts below about how the coronavirus could impact primary elections around the country.
King teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in state institutions and policy, public policy and diversity in public administration. Her research focuses on political participation, voter disenfranchisement and citizen perceptions of the electoral system. Formerly a voting rights researcher in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, she contributes regularly to the Election Center Certified Election/Registration Administration Program, or CERA.
How can this kind of situation impact turnout?
 In states that don't have early voting or easily navigated absentee voting procedures, voters may choose not to participate in-person on Election Day to avoid contact with crowds. If voters become sick and are not able to vote in-person on Election Day, and do not meet the absentee ballot deadlines in their state, they may find themselves in a position where they are unable to vote. Depending on how the virus spreads, both of these scenarios could negatively affect turnout. Related, because many voters see participation on Election Day as a tradition, they may choose to vote on Election Day, regardless. This is good for turnout but also would potentially increase exposure to infected individuals. 
Should election administrators be pushing early voting as places begin to go on lockdown as we have seen in other countries and domestically in New York?
 Early in-person voting is only an option in 39 states. While all 50 states have absentee voting, the rules that govern who may qualify for an absentee ballot vary from state to state. The procedures for ballot requests and ballot returns also vary. What I think is important is that voters are aware of all of their options to cast a ballot. As things may rapidly change relying on trusted sources is important. My advice to voters who want to avoid potentially large crowds on Election Day and have the option to vote before Election Day is to do so. If you want to vote in-person and early in-person is available to you, use it. If you want to avoid people altogether and qualify for an absentee ballot and can request and return one without experiencing hardship, do so. Voting early or absentee will also allow you to avoid a last-minute polling location change.
What have you seen election administrators thinking about and prepping for should the outbreak continue/get worse?
 I am spending part of spring break in Kansas City, Missouri observing their presidential preference primary. I think what they are doing here is a good example of how local jurisdictions can prepare. On Election Day, they provided each polling location with a "Corona Kit." The kit included bottles of hand sanitizer for voters and poll workers, alcohol wipes for the voting equipment and Lysol and Clorox wipes for surfaces. Although they were able to procure enough supplies, I recognize that many jurisdictions will face challenges as the supply of many of these items will run low. If possible, voters might consider bringing hand sanitizer to the polling location. They are also working to identify alternate polling locations for their municipal election in April should polling locations become available. More broadly, election officials have been sharing updated information through official department websites and social media accounts, informing voters of changes, and providing up to date information about polling locations and other pertinent voting information. 
Any other thoughts, or things that are pertinent in the election world as it relates to coronavirus?
 I would like everyone to consider the unprecedented pressure that our election administration systems are under as election administrators work to serve voters to the best of their ability in an environment of uncertainty. I would encourage voters to rely on information directly from trusted sources (the state election office or local election office) as there will no doubt be a considerable amount of misinformation spread during upcoming elections. Voters should also be prepared for polling locations to change as certain locations may become unavailable due to the coronavirus. If you are contacted by an election official asking to use your space to serve as a polling location, and you are in a position to comfortably say yes, please do so. The challenges associated with identifying polling locations, under the best circumstances, would probably surprise the public. In the current situation where the environment is rapidly changing, the professionals who run our elections are doing their best to address challenges that have arisen due to coronavirus. Lastly, I would say to voters: consider your health, consider your options and find the best way for you to participate.