washington election workers gloves
Here are precautions election workers are taking against coronavirus
02:26 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Katie Hobbs, Democrat, is Arizona’s 21st Secretary of State. Kim Wyman, Republican, is Washington’s 15th Secretary of State. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

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Over the weekend, New York joined Delaware and Pennsylvania as the latest states to move their primaries to June in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the territory of Puerto Rico, which had already moved its primary to late April, now finds itself less than a month away from holding an election, pending another postponement.

While a few weeks may seem like an eternity in the midst of a pandemic whose impact is growing by the hour, it leaves little time for state officials to implement emergency plans to administer fair, free and accurate elections in this crisis.

Katie Hobbs and Kim Wyman

These postponements have created concerns that the November general election could be delayed. This is not a good option. Delaying would create confusion by upending the one Election Day that Americans have collectively observed since 1845.

Instead, we should invest our time over the next several months toward preparing for November and addressing the problem the coronavirus has made quite apparent: Not all states have the resources to adapt to an environment that discourages social contact. As such, they need significant funding to help them successfully and safely conduct elections.

As part of a $2 trillion historic package to boost our health care system and provide financial relief to households and businesses, Congress provided a small down payment to our democracy with $400 million allocated to protecting our elections. But states need billions, not millions, to ensure secure voting.

The House stimulus bill initially included $4 billion toward protecting our democracy, in keeping with estimates from the Brennan Center for Justice and Bipartisan Policy Center that priced election resiliency measures between $1.5 and $2 billion, while recognizing states will have additional costs and needs.

Further robust action is needed – and quickly. And while states can take common sense steps to prepare for primaries and the November election, they will need additional federal resources now.

So, what can states do? One potential solution is expanding mail-in ballot options, so no American has to choose between participating in democracy and maintaining their safety. In Washington, the early epicenter of the pandemic, all voters were mailed a ballot and had the option to make their choices at home and return the ballot postage free. In Arizona, around 80% of voters statewide receive a ballot by mail and can return those ballots via mail or a drop box. For perspective, five states mostly vote by mail and another three regularly see more than half their ballots cast by mail.

We can also improve the ability and ease of voting an absentee ballot. About a third of states require a written excuse to vote by absentee ballot, such as being out of the county on Election Day or having to work during all voting hours. Many of the remaining states that offer “no-excuse” absentee ballot voting still require that voters apply for an absentee ballot, while a handful of states automatically mail ballots to eligible voters without an application.

This variation is something we must solve. In order to make voting widely accessible, especially in the middle of this national emergency, it is imperative that all states have the flexibility to mail ballots to every eligible voter – wherever they may be taking shelter.

Expanding no-excuse, absentee vote-by-mail will still require implementing new measures to adhere to CDC guidelines for social distancing, sanitizing equipment and hand-washing. Even voting by mail requires processing, counting, and reporting votes by an army of people, often working in close proximity. This means that mail-in elections reduce, but do not eliminate, the need for in-person engagement, and we must adapt accordingly.

We should also expand in-person and remote options to all eligible voters. This includes an extended early in-person voting period allowing citizens to vote over several weeks rather than in a cluster on Election Day. For example, Arizona allows voters to vote in person from 29 days before the election to the Friday before the election with no excuse. Counties can allow for alternative locations for those at risk for or exposed to the coronavirus in the days leading up to the election as well.

Additional funding will be critical to protecting polling places for those who choose to vote in person, from distancing voters in line to ensuring election workers have the space and equipment they need to stay safe.

Another obstacle to overcome is going to be unprecedented levels of misinformation related to the election. Officials were already preparing to combat campaigns to sow doubt in our democratic institutions following similar efforts to influence voters by foreign and domestic actors in 2016 and 2018.

Officials must double down on voter education to combat misinformation during this uncertain time and ensure voters are aware of new voting practices in their state. Significant funding should be dedicated to online campaigns and public service advertising to reach voters where they are and ensure they hear directly from state officials, not internet trolls.

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    To be sure, states will have different needs and solutions to increase safe options for voting. Successful transition will depend on an unprecedented coordination of equipment, supplies and personnel between federal, state and local officials, with the postal service and businesses helping to solve these big challenges.

    This does not have to be partisan. Election officials work in a bipartisan manner daily, and both of us have worked with governors of the opposing party to implement successful voting reforms in the past. We need Congress to take the same approach to securing our elections during this pandemic and provide the financial resources states need to protect the future of our country and democracy.