by Zach Drucker
Pandemic or no pandemic, come Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020, elections will take place in San Francisco and around the country—this is more or less unmovable. And with the 2020 Presidential election comes many changes to the normal election process. After watching how several elections that took place during the height of the pandemic unfolded, officials have been working to protect both voting rights and public health for the Presidential election.
Learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on elections by listening to sf.citi’s conversation with California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla.
The coronavirus threw the wrench of all wrenches into an already vulnerable election system. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, our elections struggled to stand up against international interference, malicious cyber attacks, and widespread voter disenfranchisement. Now one of the most anticipated elections in recent memory—and what was the largest projected voter turnout in history— faces even more challenges.
HOW WILL WE ADJUST ELECTION PROCEDURES IN THE AGE OF COVID-19?
With expectations that the second wave of COVID-19 will hit in the fall and a vaccine still far from ready, in-person voting does not present the best option for voters. It is more than obvious that officials need to move away from in-person voting and predominantly conduct the 2020 Presidential election by mail. The Wisconsin primary debacle proved that to the nation. As a result, cities and states have put forth a number of solutions to safeguard voters and the election process.
Automatically send registered voters mail-in ballots. In 34 states, voters can receive a mail-in ballot—also known as an absentee ballot—without justification such as living abroad or serving in the military. However, that still places the burden on voters to seek out a mail-in ballot. Instead, a more effective voting program would automatically send all registered voters mail-in ballots. Five of those 34 states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—already conduct this type of election. With the precedent set by other states, this could be the fail-proof solution adopted across the country to protect the health of voters and increase the accessibility of voting. A win-win all around.
California became the first state to move to an entirely vote-by-mail operation due to COVID-19. Already one of the three states that allowed counties to opt-in to sending all voters absentee ballots, the state had some systems in place and did not need to start from scratch. Under the Voter’s Choice Act in 2016, 15 counties in California had already opted-in. San Francisco joined these counties on May 8 when California Governor Gavin Newsom temporarily expanded the practice throughout the state by signing an executive order to automatically mail all registered voters a ballot for the Presidential election.
Governor Newsom was not willing to take any chances of risking the lives of California voters. In a statement on the executive order, he said, “Elections and the right to vote are foundational to our democracy. No Californian should be forced to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote.” Governor Newsom understands the importance of balancing public health and voting rights—though now his state and county officials have to figure out the logistics of sending 19.9 million registered voters a ballot and counting them in a timely manner (read on for more details).
In the next couple of months, we may see more states follow California’s lead or implement similar policies. Some states launched a program for the general election that automatically mails registered voters an application for an absentee ballot. This includes Connecticut, which up until its recent decision, did not even allow non-excuse absentee voting. By mailing an application for an absentee ballot, states are being somewhat more proactive in giving voters the option to not vote in person.
Loosen or get rid of excuses required to vote by mail. In 16 states, voters need to supply the state with a valid excuse to receive an absentee ballot. As voting by mail becomes an ever more polarizing issue between Democrats and Republicans, not all states will consider actively sending voters mail-in ballots or even applications. The most middle-ground option to protect constituents who want to vote without risking their health would be to relax the restrictions on what constitutes a valid excuse.
There has already been some movement on this front. For the general election, New Hampshire moved to allow residents to use COVID-19 as a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot. Then for the upcoming primary elections in New York, Kentucky, Delaware, and West Virginia, officials announced plans to mail registered voters an absentee ballot application. And in the Indiana and South Carolina primaries, officials waived the requirement to vote by mail. Are these policies a practice run before the 2020 Presidential election? They very well could be.
Enhance safety measures at polling places. Even in the states that conduct mail-in ballots by default, a number of polling stations are available to voters who want or need to use them. According to election rights advocates, polling places offer a vital service to many communities that depend on them, including those who do not speak English, who do not have a fixed address, who have learning disabilities, who recently moved, or who do not feel comfortable or understand the absentee ballot process.
Ideally, voters that can vote by mail, will choose that method. Even with a smaller number of people coming to the polling place, voting in person still presents many safety challenges. Finding the right space and staffing these polling centers becomes essential. Local officials have to find a space large enough that people can navigate the voting process while respecting physical distancing guidelines.
Officials also have to find volunteers willing to work the polls. Unfortunately, the volunteer pool happens to be made up largely of those most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19: retirees.
In San Francisco, the City’s Chief of Elections, John Arntz, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he asked San Franciscans who regularly host polling places and the volunteers that staff them if they would be willing to participate in the November 2020 election. 25 percent flat-out refused and the rest remained tentatively open, but would more than likely decline if the situation does not get better or the coronavirus surges again come election time. This is a common challenge sure to plague many local officials in the coming months.
Streamline ballot counting. As mentioned earlier, giving every registered voter in California a mail-in ballot leads to an issue on the backend: delays in counting the ballots and finalizing the results. Officials catch no break with this being a Presidential election. With the voter turnout—if it rivals 2016’s results— surpassing 80 percent, counties could be looking at days, if not weeks, of counting ballots after election day.
To speed up the ballot counting process in San Francisco, the City announced plans to use a large warehouse on Pier 31—outfitted under physical distancing guidelines—to count ballots. This is a positive sign that San Francisco is trending in the right direction, but more can be done to avoid a backlog of uncounted ballots. The President of the California Voter Foundation, Kim Alexander, suggests “flattening the voting curve”. She wants officials to spread the word to voters to stagger their ballot returns and avoid dropping off ballots on election day—both of which can overburden the system.
Reducing the number of uncounted ballots after the election day has become a high priority. Using historical data from previous November elections, Rob Pyers, the research director of the California Target Book, found that six million ballots could remain uncounted on election day. As a failsafe measure to ensure that every vote is counted, Pyers wrote a letter to Governor Newsom, urging him to extend the number of days they have to count ballots. The Governor may easily follow through on this, as he made this exact same extension back in March for California’s Presidential Primary.
Officials better prepare for the worst because significantly delaying the report of the election results could weaken the legitimacy of, and the public’s confidence in, the entire election process.
HOW WILL VOTER INITIATIVES QUALIFY FOR THE SAN FRANCISCO BALLOT AND BEYOND?
In recent years, San Francisco ballots have been packed—some might even say overflowing—with local ballot measures. San Francisco can thank, in part, the initiative process for the high number of ballot measures. To get on the ballot, voter initiatives bypass receiving support from elected officials and instead rely on the public’s support in the way of signatures.
Depending on the type of legislation the campaign is pushing for, the signature threshold can be drastically different. In San Francisco, initiatives are either an Ordinance or Charter Amendment. Ordinances require at least five percent of the votes cast for all candidates for Mayor at the most recent election: 8,979 signatures. Charter Amendments, meanwhile, need to gather at least 10 percent of the total number of voters in the department’s most recent official report of registration to the Secretary of State: 50,019 valid signatures. In an environment dictated by the rules of COVID-19, the road to collecting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot now feels almost insurmountable.
Without help from officials, this has led to stalled ballot initiatives and suspended campaigns. In San Francisco, ballot initiatives could face the same fate as it appears they will not be granted a break or any assistance on gathering signatures. That leaves local initiatives campaigns until July 6 (120 days before election day) to turn in the required number of signatures. Elsewhere, ballot measure campaigns have some hope left as they explore a few options available to them.
Collect electronic signatures. In today’s digital age this practice should be commonplace. However, like many parts of the election process, technological updates have not been fully embraced. State officials accept only handwritten signatures, nothing else. To be fair, since the regulations surrounding ballot measures are baked into state constitutions, the process to start allowing electronic signatures would require legislative or legal action—a rather time-consuming process.
Nonetheless, a handful of states have bucked tradition and passed legislation to allow ballot initiatives to be signed through mail and email. Campaign organizers in these states can circulate online petitions, where people can print, sign, and return the form either through the mail, fax, or email.
As of now, it does not appear that many states plan to jump on this trend, especially in states with strict verification guidelines. That has not stopped campaign organizers from moving ahead. Believing that the democratic process should not be abandoned due to COVID-19, ballot measures in some states have been circulating online petitions in the hope that their state officials start accepting electronic signatures.
File a lawsuit. While some campaigns suspended operations, other campaigns had no choice but to figure out a way to get on the November ballot. Many measures specifically chose this election to go to the ballot, whether that was due to the Presidential election having a high-voter turnout or the measure pushing a time-sensitive issue.
One of the main time-sensitive issues trying to get on the ballot across the country: redistricting reform. With redistricting happening next year, these campaigns only have one shot; there is no opportunity to try again next year.
In states that do not appear likely to budge on signature regulations, the last resort for campaigns is to file a lawsuit. The main theme of the lawsuits highlights risks to democracy. Due to COVID-19, campaigns can no longer canvass in person or collect signatures—essentially the only way to gather in-person signatures—and, therefore, the plaintiffs argue they should be granted the ability to have an alternative method to reach the ballot. Unfortunately, if the result of the first decided case serves as a preview of what is to come, the outlook for ballot initiatives is not bright.
Submit collected signatures to a future election. The pandemic worries, coupled with the recession and record unemployment, raises many concerns and uncertainty for November. Come November, the COVID-19 rebuild and relief efforts will become the focal point of voters’ priorities. Any original projections the campaign had for November can be disregarded.
With that in mind, if a ballot campaign can afford the time delay, the campaign could choose to submit the signatures they collected to count towards a future election. In California, two ballot initiatives decided to take this route and submit their signatures for November 2022, seeing it as the safest option for success.
HOW WILL CANDIDATES CAMPAIGN UNDER PHYSICAL DISTANCING GUIDELINES?
Campaigns have a track record of being early adopters and embracing new technology. Starting in 2008, the Obama Presidential campaign kicked-off a technological revolution in electioneering. Then in 2016, the Trump campaign redefined digital ad targeting. Political campaigns have proven that they will use any technology that can improve their chances of winning at the polls.
When new technology arrives on the scene, some campaigns become early adopters, while others choose to stick to classic retail politics and heavy field operations. However, in our new normal, campaigns have no choice but to figure out how to utilize technology to boost their candidate’s chances.
Host digital events. In the age of COVID-19, Twitter and Facebook have become the new rally stage, and Zoom and Instagram live have become the new living room fundraiser. Hosting campaign events online has become the gold standard. Virtual meetings and webinars have become almost ubiquitous across every industry and demographic. Even grandparents are getting a hang of it.
For the not so tech-savvy campaigns, digital events have given campaigns the ability to reach a broader audience and bring in a higher attendee turnout. As this becomes the new normal for campaigns, they need to start investing heavily in mastering digital platforms.
Invest in building up a digital presence. The COVID-19 campaign playbook is not that far off from the one used by Instagram influencers. With a decreasing number of opportunities to get in front of and connect with constituents, candidates need to build not only a presence online but a following, which is easier for some candidates than others. Older candidates sticking to their pre-technology ways and down-ballot candidates with little to no name recognition certainly face an uphill battle. Who would have guessed campaigning would boil down to who has more followers on Instagram? That’s 2020 for you.
Shift campaign resources to COVID-19 relief. During the pandemic, it can be difficult to talk about issues involving anything other than COVID-19. And it can be especially difficult to ask for campaign donations. While some of this might change in the coming months as we get closer to election day, some campaigns have found political campaign skills highly transferable to organizing relief efforts. Instead of phone-banking or knocking on doors for candidates, campaigns and their volunteers have been making calls for food donations. Instead of raising campaign contributions, they have raised money for local nonprofits. This not only provides the candidate more facetime in front of voters but, more importantly, it shows the candidate’s dedication to representing and giving back to their community.
Try anything. They do not teach “running a campaign during a pandemic” in college. There is no book on campaigning during a health crisis. This is time for campaigns to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Across the country, candidates have already started to test new campaign tactics. In Montana, a candidate running for Superintendent is using Facebook Live to read to students. A candidate for Congress in New York City has taken to answering questions on social media livestreams while she does activities such as cooking and playing Fortnite. And in Florida, campaigns have hosted digital block parties with DJs, partnered with designers on Pinterest, and used the videogame “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” to talk to voters. To stand out amongst the field and get in front of voters, campaign officials will have to dig deep and get creative.
CHANGE IS EVERYWHERE BUT ELECTIONS, MORE OR LESS, WILL STAY THE SAME
Many elections are considered the most important election at the time. This election is no different. The 2020 Presidential election will be the most closely watched news story in America and likely the world, maybe even surpassing COVID-19. As we gear up for the November election, protecting both public health and voting rights will be at the forefront of every decision officials make.
As demonstrated by some of their early actions, San Francisco and California election officials are more than up to the challenge of balancing voters’ health and access to the ballot. As with every aspect of daily life, the election process has been upended by COVID-19. And as we have done with almost everything during the pandemic, we learned to make adjustments.
At sf.citi, we will be closely following San Francisco’s upcoming election. Make sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on all San Francisco election stories.