2020 Elections: A year of challenges
With a high-profile presidential race underway and concerns about disinformation efforts by foreign entities, federal elections already were poised to take center stage in 2020. The arrival of COVID-19 in the United States during the start of the primary election season further heightened public attention and presented significant challenges to the electoral process.
States and localities have had to promulgate stay-at-home orders and restrict large public gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, which elevated the issue of how to conduct fair, secure and safe elections in locations that primarily utilize in-person voting.
States have responded by implementing new measures to ensure safe and accessible elections, including postponing primary election dates, expanding absentee and mail-in voting, and instituting safety protocols at physical polling locations that have been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some of these safety measures have been litigated, with several of them reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite these circumstances, some states saw record turnouts for their primary elections, and that trend is expected to persist for the general election.
In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which included $400 million in emergency funding for states “to prevent, prepare for and respond” to the coronavirus during the 2020 federal election cycle. States need this funding to recruit poll workers, purchase personal protection equipment and supplies for polling places, and cover increased printing and postage costs for mail-in ballots and public education efforts. States and localities and many nongovernmental organizations have urged Congress to appropriate additional funding for use by states for the general election.
On May 15, the House of Representatives passed its most recent stimulus bill, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which would provide $3.6 billion in election aid for state and local governments. It also would provide for a nationwide mail-in voting option and a two-week early voting period.
On July 27, however, the Senate released its own stimulus bill called the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act, which does not provide additional funding for elections.
At the time of this writing, the House and Senate were still negotiating what provisions would be included in the next stimulus bill.
The ABA continues to take action to help ensure safe and fair elections. During the 2020 annual meeting, the ABA House of Delegates adopted several election-related resolutions. One updates the ABA Election Administration Guidelines and Commentary and includes a provision supporting no-excuse absentee ballot rules. Two others, Resolutions 300A and 300B, support measures to combat disinformation and technological threats to election processes and promote digital literacy, civic education and public awareness to build societal resilience to domestic and foreign disinformation operations.
With many changes happening around the election process, it is critical that voters have access to reliable information in real time to understand their rights. To help address this need, the ABA Governmental Affairs Office created the ABA Election Center. Visitors to the website (ambar.org/electioncenter) will find information on how to check their registration status and register to vote as well as state-specific information on early and absentee voting, key election dates, serving as a poll worker and more.
COVID-19 presents challenges to recruiting poll workers. In the 2018 general election, more than 600,000 poll workers served in precincts around the country. Over half of those workers were over age 60, and more than a quarter were over age 70—a population that is now at high risk for COVID-19. Even states that are moving to primarily mail-in balloting need some physical voting locations to ensure accessibility for certain populations. New and additional poll workers are desperately needed in many states.
In response to this need, the ABA, led by the Standing Committee on Election Law, is partnering with the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors on an initiative to recruit lawyers to serve as nonpartisan poll workers.
The initiative—listed under the banner of Poll Worker, Esq.—builds on long-standing ABA policy urging lawyers and legal professionals to serve as poll workers and urging legal employers to facilitate their participation.
Through these and other activities, the ABA and its members will continue to play an important role in helping to ensure access to the polls for all eligible voters and preserving the integrity of the 2020 general elections.
Visit ambar.org/grassroots to learn how you can get involved with issues important to the legal profession.
This report is written by the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government.