Some voters are scared the coronavirus will stop them from casting a ballot

Key Points
  • Some Americans and voting rights groups are concerned that the pandemic will force voters to pick between avoiding contact with people to stay healthy and exercising their right to vote in November.
  • Complicating matters, President Donald Trump and members of the Republican Party are on the attack against widespread mail-in voting while Democrats push for expanded access.
  • Now some voters fear that a lack of preparation by state officials and the looming threat of the coronavirus might force some Americans to sit out the upcoming November election. 
An election official checks in a resident at a drive-up polling place set up outside of Roosevelt Elementary School on April 07, 2020 in Racine, Wisconsin.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Erica Friedle had not missed a vote in seven years. Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

Friedle told CNBC she didn't receive her absentee ballot for April's Wisconsin presidential primary. And now she fears that a lack of preparation by state officials and the continued threat of the disease might force her to sit out the upcoming November election in the swing state. 

As health officials predict that the pandemic might last into the fall, many states are beginning to plan for the likelihood of people opting to vote by mail instead of showing up in person, where the risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus is greater. 

For some people, the coronavirus has made voting a nerve-wracking action. Some Americans and voting rights groups are concerned that the pandemic is forcing voters to choose between avoiding contact with people to stay healthy and exercising their right to vote. Come November, these concerns might linger.

"Are people going to want to stay in line to vote? Are people going to be requesting absentee ballots? Do people even have the technology to request a ballot online?" Friedle asked, listing out some of her immediate worries in an interview with CNBC. "There are so many unknowns right now."

The Wisconsin primary in particular has been criticized for its disorganization and last-minute changes, leading to voter confusion and disenfranchisement and serves as an example of what voting rights groups hope will not happen in November.

Complicating matters, President Donald Trump and members of the Republican Party are on the attack against widespread mail-in voting while Democrats push for expanded access. Late last month, Trump threatened to withhold funding from Michigan and Nevada for expanding their mail-in voting services in an effort to avoid crowded polling centers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"More and more states are allowing vote-by-mail without voters having to provide a reason or excuse for it," said Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org, a nonprofit focusing on advancing voter ballot access. "Other states are mailing applications to voters, which is critical for ensuring that all voters can participate in the electoral process."

More than half, or 54%, of Americans said they would back voting by mail in the upcoming presidential election if the pandemic persists, according to an April Morning Consult poll. And 66% of surveyed Americans said in March that they were concerned about voting in person during the coronavirus outbreak. 

"We are seeing signs that voters are registering at numbers unseen from our organization, and that they are very much interested in voting by absentee," Hailey told CNBC in an email.

But mail-in voting can bring its own concerns, especially if there are underlying circumstances that affect support, such as the potential for U.S. Postal Service operation failure or miscommunication between state officials and voters.

Friedle, a second-grade teacher, said she applied for an absentee ballot but did not receive it ahead of the Wisconsin presidential primary on April 7. She is a single mother with a 10-year-old child, sharing custody with her ex-husband, a scientist at a large pharmaceutical company who at the time of the primary had been working on a vaccine for Covid-19.

The combination of being unable to leave her child alone and fearing getting sick at the polls made Friedle miss the vote.  

"I didn't want to put myself at risk for getting sick," she said. "I've been taking care of my daughter the whole time. Her father works crazy hours, and at that time, he was telling me he might get locked out in his work, that he wouldn't be able to leave his work."

She added: "That just made me nervous. Who's gonna watch my daughter?" 

Friedle, 41, is not within the most vulnerable age group for contracting the most severe form of the virus. But there's still a lot at stake for people like Friedle: parents with young kids or teachers whose students are relying on them even as online classes persist. Knowing the risks, Friedle chose instead to skip out on voting. She feared if she contracted the virus, she would pass it on to her daughter or potentially be unable to teach. 

Voting rights groups stress that the most susceptible people are "older voters and people with pre-existing conditions," according to Brett Edkins, political director at New York-based Stand Up America, a nonprofit focused on advancing Democratic goals. "Children and younger parents are at relatively low risk of becoming seriously ill. Election experts across the partisan divide say that mail-in voting is the safest alternative to in-person voting."

But Friedle's experience during the Wisconsin primary gave her a taste of what November might look like for her and other voters across the nation, she said. 

She's hoping to see her state take action in the coming months to reduce the likelihood of people experiencing what she did. This includes "having multiple ways to vote, whether you want to vote early, via an absentee ballot or in person."

At the same time, she's concerned about whether officials are considering the feasibility of these moves. "How can we do that? How can we do it safely so people aren't being exposed to germs or viruses?" she asked. "Lots of organizations are out there that drive people to the polls. Are people still organizing these things with Covid going on?"

In other states, some voters are concerned that there won't be enough done to make in-person voting safer. 

Angel Wells, a frequent voter and a self-described human rights activist based in Arizona, said that's what's driving her fears today. 

Voting can get chaotic in Arizona, said Wells, a veteran. In her voting area, "there are 64 voting offices where you can cast your vote. But that's not enough when you live in a valley with millions of people."

"When people go out to vote, those lines are long. The polling booths are close [together]. They're not six feet apart. How are we supposed to have this vote and keep within health guidelines?" 

"People are rightly concerned about having to choose between their right to vote and their health," Edkins of Stand Up America said. "I think we're hearing a lot of those concerns from our community and from voters everywhere."

Poll workers take ballots during curbside voting on April 7, 2020 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Residents in Wisconsin went to the polls a day after the U.S. Supreme Court voted against an extension of the absentee ballot deadline in the state. Because of the coronavirus, the number of polling places was drastically reduced.
Andy Manis | Getty Images

Friedle's experience illustrates that much of the burden to acquire an absentee ballot was placed on her. She said she emailed the city clerk when she realized she didn't have her absentee ballot, asking for guidance in obtaining one. The city clerk shot back an email the day of the election, she told CNBC, attaching a ballot that needed to be printed, filled out and hand-delivered. Handing in the ballot wasn't worth the risk to her health, she said.

The District of Columbia and 34 states, including five that conduct all-mail voting, use no-excuse absentee voting, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. But even so, a lot of those states don't typically send out absentee ballots unless a registered voter requests one. California is the most recent state to announce that all registered voters will receive a mail-in ballot for November's election because of the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

At the same time, voting rights groups and registered voters recognize that there will be people still opting to show up and vote at the polls in November. 

"Expanding vote-by-mail options is exactly what more communities need, but we must also ensure that it is safe to vote in person," said Vote.org's Hailey. "That is why it should be a top priority for governments at all levels to fully fund our elections, that we have at least 20 days of early voting and that poll workers can conduct our elections in sanitary, safe conditions for our communities to vote in person as well."

That's the question many states are trying to answer right now, grappling with early preparations for the execution of the November election and trying to rethink voting. 

"Nobody who's under 100 years old has run an election during a pandemic," Edkins of Stand Up America said. To decrease the risk of spreading the coronavirus, state officials are going to have to "train on a very local level to prepare people," he told CNBC. That includes finding ways to maintain a standard six feet of distance between voters, having hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment readily available, regularly disinfecting voting booths and employing cough guards. 

Officials also have to take into account how volunteers and poll workers will engage with voters, Edkins said. It's important to remember to keep "distance from voters who are often right next to poll workers verifying their signatures and signing them in to vote. I think they're going to have to think through all those procedures."

Already, there's been considerable advancement in the nationwide expansion of ballot access, Edkins said, adding that "most states are making good progress."

"Multiple states have added Covid as a reason and an excuse to get an absentee ballot."

Many of the voting changes transcend party lines, Edkins said. Vote-by-mail expansion is coming "not just from Democratic states, but also Republican states with local election officials that are making these changes as well." 

It's too early to tell how these changes will affect voter turnout in November. For some voters, the concern is that these changes may not be enough to get the highest participation level possible. 

"Voting is incredibly important," Friedle said. "It's our opportunity to put people in power to make a difference. The people who are making those choices have an impact in my life."