Trust Magazine

Now Is the Time to Prepare for the Next Election Emergency

On the record

In this Issue:

  • Spring 2021
  • U.S. Public Opinion on the Pandemic
  • The Pandemic and the Arts in Philadelphia
  • A Time for Renewal
  • Californias Temblor Range in Bloom
  • Noteworthy
  • Online Harassment
  • A Boost for Public Safety
  • Vaccines and Misinformation
  • Antarctic Penguins Compete for Krill
  • U.S. Senate Has Fewest Split Delegations
  • States' Unemployment Systems
  • Employers Embrace Auto-IRAs
  • A Vision for Lasting Philanthropy
  • The Next Election Emergency
  • Return on Investment
  • Two Different Fonts of Information
  • View All Other Issues
Now Is the Time to Prepare for the Next Election Emergency
Voters wait to cast their presidential primary election ballots in Milwaukee on April 7, 2020.
Kamil Krazaczynski AFP via Getty Images

The 2020 election has rightly been judged as well-managed, despite the enormous challenges posed by casting and counting millions of votes in the midst of a deadly pandemic and national lockdown.

Election officials nationwide provided access to early voting and mail-in ballots and managed to keep poll workers and voters safe during an intense election with record turnout. 

They did a remarkable job, but the outcome could have been much, much different.

Suppose the coronavirus had arrived on American shores not in February but in October. Suppose that instead of eight months for state and local election officials to plan for voting during the pandemic, they had only weeks. 

That’s essentially what happened in Wisconsin’s presidential primary. Amid the first wave of the virus, the state proceeded with its scheduled April 7 primary. In Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, intense fear of infection led thousands of poll workers to decline to serve. Just four days before the primary, the city announced that only 4 percent of its polling locations would open, resulting in three-hour waits to vote and a significant drop in anticipated turnout.

Imagine if that had happened just four days before the November general election, with its huge voter turnout. Milwaukee would have had to funnel a quarter of a million voters through just five polling places—an impossible task. Instead, because the city had eight months to recover after the primary, Milwaukee accommodated 68 percent of its voters through early and mail voting. The city rallied to open 175 voting locations with pandemic protections for the 80,000 voters who cast their ballots in person on Nov. 3.

The lesson is clear: The nation needs to plan now for late-emerging problems and voting contingencies well before the next presidential election.

"No one can predict or control when or how the next threat to an election may arise."

Our presidential election calendar is set in stone by the Constitution. Other nations can move their elections in response to a pandemic, natural disaster, or terrorist attack, and more than half of the scheduled elections around the world have been rescheduled during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., individual states may be able to cancel a primary or reschedule a state election, but the presidential election must take place on the first Tuesday in November. 

Election officials started realizing last April that they had to make dramatic changes to meet that deadline. They shifted 40 million voters to mail ballots, bought millions of dollars’ worth of new equipment to handle the mail volume, recruited hundreds of thousands of new poll workers, replaced tens of thousands of polling places that were lost to COVID-19 restrictions, bought expensive protective equipment for workers, and found ways to share up-to-date information on voting options and polling places.

The urgent need to act revealed a patchwork of solutions and a desperate scramble for funding. Governors exercised emergency authority in many states to adapt election laws and practices. Civic groups stepped in to create websites to recruit election workers. Retired election officials came forward to help local election offices. Social media companies created platforms to communicate trusted election information as COVID-19 forced rapid changes in mail-in ballot rules and voting locations.

The federal government eventually contributed $400 million to help, but only after a political fight. Private contributions from individuals and philanthropies actually exceeded the federal funding. That was a crucial investment during a once-in-a-lifetime election, but it was hardly a model of how the most basic democratic institution should be funded in future crises.

All these laudable efforts succeeded only because officials had months to act. No one can predict or control when or how the next threat to an election may arise. The time to plan is now. 

Election reform is on the agenda right now in Congress and in many state legislatures. The first bill introduced in the new Congress, H.R. 1, is a 791-page catalog of proposals long sought by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives for voting rights, election administration, redistricting, government ethics, and campaign finance. But bipartisan compromise will be required for passage.

While H.R. 1 has a short section requiring states to publish emergency action plans, it does not create a comprehensive emergency management infrastructure for future elections. It should.  The bill requires further fine-tuning to give election officials the flexibility they need to meet operational challenges in emergencies.

The federal government cannot act alone. State policymakers and election administrators play a pivotal role—and modernizing our election system will depend on reforms in states and localities. America’s citizens deserve good-faith, nonpartisan cooperation among the local, state, and federal governments. Recent efforts to build trust between election officials and the federal government in the area of cybersecurity could serve as a model. 

Election officials face challenges every year: bomb scares, no-show poll workers, blizzards, power outages, hurricanes, and more, usually regional in scope. In 2020, they faced and met a true national threat to a presidential election. Now is the time to focus on what they learned—and to prepare for the next crisis before it arrives.

Michael Caudell-Feagan is executive vice president and chief program officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Charles Stewart III heads the Election Data and Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This piece was originally published in The Hill on March 9, 2021.

Return on Investment A Vision for Lasting Philanthropy
America’s Overdose Crisis
America’s Overdose Crisis

America’s Overdose Crisis

Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care

Sign up
Quick View

America’s Overdose Crisis

Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care

Sign up
Trust Magazine

How Americans View Trust, Facts, and Democracy Today

Quick View
Trust Magazine

For more than three decades, the Pew Research Center has examined how people think about democracy, trust in institutions, and the role of information in society. In light of current debates about the state of the democratic process and the importance of truth, we decided in 2018 to redouble our focus on the role of information and trust in democratic societies.

Trust Magazine

Public Transit Triumphs at Ballot Box

Quick View
Trust Magazine

Far fewer people are riding buses and trains during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in November’s election, voters still approved more than a dozen proposals to increase spending on public transit.

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.