Turning Out the Vote Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

Emma Shokeir | Research and Policy Fellow 

In the 2016 federal election, approximately 57.2 million Americans voted using absentee ballots, early, or mail-in ballots.[1] States that reported gender data on these voters found that approximately 56% were women, which when applied nationally is 32.03 million female voters.[2],[3] Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent social distancing responses, more Americans than ever will rely on these forms of voting. Despite higher interest in voting, women, who are the majority of essential workers and take on more burden of care, will find it more difficult to get to the polls.[4] Previous forms of absentee voting have been either excuse absentee voting, excuse meaning that individuals may need to provide a valid reason for not being able to appear on Election day, no-excuse absentee voting, or permanent absentee voting. State and federal government politicians have advised an expansion of absentee voting initiatives in order to assist voters in elections that occur during COVID-19. Past laws expanding absentee and mail-in voting have helped grow the electorate, both demographically and in overall voter turnout. Though every state constitutionally has absentee voting, there are state-by-state barriers to voting this way.


By reducing restrictions on ballot applications, creating longer windows for early voting and absentee ballot registration, and providing a universal vote by mail (VBM) option, states can facilitate safe voting during upcoming elections.


To protect against the virus, the CDC has recommended polling places to follow social distancing guidelines, which would require voters and voting booths to be separated. This and other protective measures, such as sanitizing surfaces, will cause long lines and more work for polling place employees.[5] While polling places are needed for people with limited mail and internet access, those who need language assistance, and some individuals with disabilities, early voting and VBM can mitigate crowds and enable voters to follow social distancing guidelines.[6]

Approximately 40% of people who voted in the 2018 midterm elections voted via VBM or absentee ballot.[7] This has been increasing from 10.5% in 1996, as alternative forms of voting have been expanded and reformed, moving away from an excuse only absentee system.[8] Within the electorate, women typically make up a greater portion of total voters and use alternative methods of voting more than men.[9] A 2020 study of Ohio laws, found that women react 30 percent more strongly than men to additional early voting. Those voters in prime working years and those raising young children were also impacted significantly by early voting, which applies disproportionately to women.[10] The amount of care provided to children increased by 37% for Latinas, compared to 30% of overall women. Latina voters have been a growing segment of the electorate, but 20% said they would not vote in the upcoming election, potentially due to increased burdens at home.[11] The portion of women unable to reach the polls could be expected to grow as one in three jobs held by women has been deemed essential, meaning many women will have less time to vote on a specific day while enduring long wait times.[12]

Twenty-three states have left their election procedures unchanged in response to the Coronavirus.[13]Thirty-seven states and DC have early voting systems and non-physical ballots in some form are present in every state. Oregon’s absentee voting system, in which ballots are automatically sent to every voter who can either mail it back or deliver it in person to a voting location, has improved voter turnout modestly in presidential and congressional elections. It has more significantly impacted voter turnout in local, primary, and special elections, increasing it by around 10%. Experts point to two ways that this system helps voter turnout: by retaining voters who might otherwise not have voted and by bringing marginal voters into the electorate.[14] Rising demand from the public for absentee ballots reflects a broad level for laws that would expand access to alternative forms of voting. For example, Wisconsin voters registered for absentee ballots sprung from 14% last spring to 71% this spring.[15] The Courts have favored reforms as well, with Texas and South Carolina having both recently experienced judicial decisions in support of eased restrictions on absentee ballots.[16],[17]


Early Voters from the 2018 General Election in Several States[18]

*Only 4 states with data on the gender of early voters

State Women Early Voters Percentage of Women out of State Total Early Voters
Colorado  774,827 51.4%
Georgia  1,178,700 56.2%
South Carolina  175,210 54.9%
North Carolina  1,109,627 54.1%


Opposition to absentee voting, early voting, and VBM have several main arguments. Voter fraud when VBM is used has been a major concern for policymakers. First, mail ballots are at risk for fraud because a ballot could be requested or intercepted by someone else. Second, without the security of a voting booth, people are more susceptible to coercion and voter impersonation.[19] Although some opponents of absentee ballots claim that VBM makes voter fraud easier, in reality, fraud occurs very rarely and statistically mail voting is unrelated to voter fraud. In Oregon, which exclusively uses absentee ballots, there have only been 12 cases of voter fraud from 2000 to 2012. Similarly, The Brennan Center for Justice found after intensive investigation that only 491 ballots nationally in that same period were fraudulent.[20]

There are also concerns over potentially partisan benefits of VBM and early voting. Women vote more when there is early voting, and tend to be Democrats more than Republicans.[21] The increased turnout for women and young people is correlated with an increase in Democrat voters. However, the study of Ohio found moderate positive impacts on Republican voter turnout, showing that early voting in the 2012 election increased by 0.36%. Moreover, the largest increases in Democrat partisan voting were in large urban centers that already heavily leaned left, leaving the rural Republican’s electorate virtually the same.[22] There is no evidence that mail-in voting gives any party an advantage.[23]

Many legislators and constituents are concerned with the immediate cost of implementing new systems. Printing mail-in ballots, actually mailing them to voters, including pre-paid return postage, processing the filled-out ballots, which requires specialized machines and training poll workers to use them, will require substantial funding. Logistical costs including active addresses for voters, voter awareness of changes to voting systems, and access to the internet or mail to change addresses would prove challenging as well. The Brennan Center for Justice predicted comprehensive voting reform measures to protect the 2020 election against COVID-19 would cost an estimated $2 billion. [24] States are expected to use their funds provided by the federal government’s $2 trillion stimulus package, the CARES Act, in its $400 million election security grants to pay for the voting changes.[25],[26] However, many states cannot match the 20% funding required to access the federal election protection funding, ultimately forcing them to pull money from funds from other areas or forgo election protection entirely.[27]

Federal funding for ballots and supportive measures would ensure higher voter turnout in elections at all levels. Voter fraud is unlikely to occur at more frequent rates, contrary to the thought behind restrictions to voter’s ability to register for mail-in ballots. Partisan bias should not be an issue in the decision to make early, absentee, and mail-in ballots more available, as numerous studies have shown negligible partisan effects. While the cost to the federal and state governments may be high in the short term, expanding these voting methods will benefit women, and all Americans, as they would enable fair elections and allow voters to adhere to protective social distancing guidelines.



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