Only 20 Percent of Voters Live in States Ready to Hold Safe Elections in a Pandemic

Millions of Voters Could Be Exposed to Health Risks If States Don’t Act Fast

Published Jul 6, 2020

WASHINGTON (July 7, 2020)—Only 20 percent of voters live in the eight states that are adequately prepared to hold safe and fair elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The study found the majority of states are not adequately prepared and a full third of voters, in 16 states, may be significantly at risk of contracting the coronavirus when casting their votes.

“No one should have to risk their life to exercise their right to vote,” said Michael Latner, senior voting rights fellow at UCS and an associate professor of political science at California Polytechnic University. “Unfortunately, in the midst of a pandemic, too many states are forcing their electorate to make that choice by failing to provide safe, accessible ways to register and vote. People can’t advocate for their interests, hold their leaders accountable, or have confidence that their voice matters if they can’t take part in the election.”

In the analysis, UCS evaluated states’ readiness for the election by looking at key metrics of how people can participate, including easy online voter registration, wide access to early in-person voting, and the ability to vote by mail without an excuse. The analysis also looked at states’ capacities to track and secure ballots. States need to act now—and get funding and support from the federal government—to be ready for voting this fall, according to the study. States also need to implement public education programs to make sure all of their residents know how to vote safely.

Among the findings in the UCS analysis:

  • While 39 of the 50 states have online voter registration available, only 18 automatically register residents to vote, and only 17 provide the option of same-day registration.
  • While 35 states have some level of mail voting with no excuse required, only seven states had more than 50 percent of their electorate vote by mail in 2016. In more than half of states, fewer than 10 percent of voters voted by mail in 2016.
  • While 40 states have some provision for early in-person voting, only 25 have voting available more than two weeks before Election Day, and only 15 states had more than 50 percent of their electorate vote early in 2016.
  • The 8 best-prepared states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
  • The 16 states whose voters may be most at risk of contracting COVID-19 while voting are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.

The UCS analysis is accompanied by an interactive online map showing how prepared each state is for the November election.

“There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to have a major impact on our ability to hold a free, fair election in November,” said Latner. “We’ve already seen the impact in primary elections across the country this year. We can’t have a functioning democracy unless we rebuild our systems to protect people’s health and safety.”

The danger isn’t distributed equally. The communities that face the greatest danger from COVID-19—including, Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, low-income neighborhoods, and people with disabilities—are also the communities that will have the most trouble participating in the electoral process. These voters are more likely to face overcrowding and long lines at the polls, which expose them to higher risks from COVID-19. And a previous UCS study suggests that restrictive voting laws are associated with worse health outcomes. These communities need to be at the center of efforts to ensure safe and fair elections.

“Ample early voting, online and same-day registration, and vote-by-mail are the tools we need to make sure everyone’s voice is heard in November,” said Latner. “All the evidence shows they can increase turnout without benefiting one party over another. We’re in an emergency—leaders at the state and national levels need to act like it, and enact the reforms we know are needed.”

Some states, including California and Vermont, have acted quickly to prepare for a safe election by deciding to send mail-in ballots to all eligible voters. But millions of people may be forced to vote in unsafe conditions unless Congress and state leaders act quickly.

Hundreds of public health, civil rights, and legal experts have signed an open letter asking for states to adopt reforms as quickly as possible to support safe participation in the election.

Latner, Voting Rights Lab, and the UCLA Voting Rights Project co-wrote a new policy brief, also released today, analyzing the health risks of an unsafe election.