Election officials fear voting changes will confuse voters in November

Key Points
  • Voting officials are concerned that drastic changes to their elections in response to efforts to contain the coronavirus will increase confusion in November.
  • Dozens of states have expanded vote-by-mail access to give voters an alternative way to safely cast a ballot in November.
  • Multiple states have also set up more polling locations, and some are considering expanding the polling period to spread out people opting for in-person voting.
A woman drops off her main in ballot outside the Denver Elections Division polling center as she votes in the primary election on June 30, 2020.
Michael Ciaglo | Getty Images

Voting officials are concerned that drastic changes to election procedures in response to the coronavirus will confuse voters in November.

Dozens of states have expanded vote-by-mail access to give people an alternative way to safely cast a ballot in November. Multiple states have also set up more polling locations, and some are considering expanding the polling period to spread out people opting for in-person voting.

While election officials have ramped up communication efforts nationwide to inform voters of all changes, worries remain that voters will find it difficult to keep up.

Already, there have been multiple reports of voter confusion during primary elections. Voters told local news outlets in New Jersey that they were confused about where to cast their ballot during the state's presidential primary last Tuesday. Others said they never received a ballot, despite an executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy ensuring that all voters would receive either a ballot or an application for one in the mail.

Voters in Pennsylvania, which held its presidential primary June 2, noted that longtime polling locations had moved elsewhere the day of the vote, resulting in confusion and frustration.

Georgia during its primary on June 9 chose to unveil a new voting system, leading to confusion among poll workers, who weren't properly trained on using the machines. Voters suffered long lines and delays, as well as technical and logistical issues. Critics said the state's primary was poorly executed and was tantamount to voter suppression.

Anticipating confusion in November

Many states fear that this kind of confusion — where voters are either unaware of or misinformed about how to cast a ballot — will also occur during the Nov. 3 election.

"Aside from the administrative issues of polling places, poll managers, Covid-19 supplies, and processing absentee ballots, our ability to educate voters on changes (or lack thereof) will play a key role in a successful November election," said Chris Whitmire, director of public information at South Carolina's Election Commission.

The most obvious potential source of voter confusion for South Carolina is the lack of new rules in place for the presidential election, Whitmire said.

Gov. Henry McMaster signed a law that authorized any voter in South Carolina to request an absentee ballot for the primary and runoff elections. And a federal court ruling said that those requesting an absentee ballot did not require a witness. These rules have expired, leaving "no changes to election procedures" at the moment, according to Whitmire.

"If there are changes, we'll work to educate voters on those. If there are no changes, we will have to work to ensure voters understand that the rules in place for the primary no longer apply," Whitmire added.  

South Carolina has been emerging as a coronavirus hot spot in recent weeks, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecasting an acceleration in Covid-19 deaths in the state in the next couple weeks.

A sign reminds voters in Baltimore to practice social distancing. Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

"We know that the number of Covid cases are expanding in the state at record levels and are more concerned today than ever about the impact on November," Whitmire said. "We don't know if the General Assembly will again expand reasons or make any other changes, and if any of the several pending court cases will result in any changes."

In Missouri, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he plans to mobilize his team in the next couple weeks to "explain what has changed and what people's options are for voting."

The state legislature expanded vote-by-mail provisions, adding mail-in voting options, Ashcroft said. These options look similar to no-excuse absentee voting, but are slightly different, according to Ashcroft.

Anyone in the state can request an absentee ballot this year, the state legislature determined. But the ballot envelope must be notarized unless the voter is immunocompromised or age 65 or older or has another condition that might put their health at risk. The notary requirement is what concerns Ashcroft, who suggested to CNBC that voters may not be aware of this distinction.

"It is against Missouri law for a notary to charge to notarize an absentee ballot," Ashcroft said. "It is not against the law for a notary to charge to notarize a mail-in ballot." His office has put together a list of organizations that have agreed to provide free notary services for mail-in and absentee ballots.

Getting ahead

Several state officials told CNBC they are preparing to overcommunicate with voters to decrease potential for confusion ahead of Election Day. 

"Our office has been actively working to keep Alabamians informed in a timely and efficient manner," said Grace Newcombe, press secretary to Alabama's secretary of state's office.

In the weeks leading up to the state's primary runoffs, "our office launched a multimedia campaign notifying Alabamians of the opportunity to vote absentee as well as important election dates to be aware of. We have sent out weekly press releases reminding Alabamians about how many days are left to apply for an absentee ballot and even introduced a video that walks voters through the process of applying for and casting an absentee ballot."

An election official wears a mask and sits behind a plastic barrier as he checks in voters at McKinley Technology High School on primary Election Day on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Officials in Idaho have sought out new ways to reach voters, said Chad Houck, chief deputy secretary of state. 

The office, as well as various Idaho counties, have been working on expanding their social media presence, particularly on Facebook, to reach audiences that may not be as aware of changes. 

"They found a larger audience there and a growing audience there, which will now give them a better voice as we move into making changes or as things evolve going forward," Houck said, adding that his office is looking at Election Day communications tools that we will probably try to test in November." 

In an effort to make the voting process easier, Michigan election officials are piloting a ballot-tracking service that allows voters to keep tabs on their individual ballots, according to Jake Rollow, director of communications and external affairs at the secretary of state's office. 

"It looks like many of the mail tracking services provided by companies that ship orders to individuals," Rollow said. "Through the use of smart bar codes on the envelopes, the voter can see ballot's status as it goes from the clerk to them and then back to the clerk."

The state will employ this tracking program during its August primary, "with the expectation of expanding statewide for November," Rollow added. 

For its presidential primary, Indiana spent a portion of allocated CARES Act funds on a voter outreach campaign "that informed voters of changes to the election and advised them to request an absentee ballot," said Ian Hauer, acting communications director at the secretary of state's office. 

"If changes are made to the general election, we will likely use a similar outreach campaign (in additional to our usual outreach campaign)," Hauer added. 

In March, Congress allocated $400 million to the Election Assistance Commission to provide states with grants "to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle." But state and local officials have been urging Congress to appropriate more money, arguing funds are rapidly depleting.

"It's looking like I spent close to 60% of my CARES Act funding on the primary election," Jared Dearing, executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections, said Wednesday. "To put that in context, we are expecting turnout to go from 30%, which was a record high for a primary election, to as much as 70%."