Future of voting will look different during and after COVID-19

Election officials agree mail-in systems work and voting will change for local and federal races this fall

Arizona is preparing to hold another primary election – this time, as COVID-19 cases increase in the state and public health officials stipulate about a future with the virus.

Maricopa County residents will vote later this fall in contested races for county-wide positions and for races to determine who shows up on the ballot in the general election. Officials who run elections said this year will look dramatically different as the county looks to other states and innovative methods in order to make sure all registered voters participate.

Monday, July 6 was the last day to register to vote in Maricopa County in the August primary for candidates for U.S. Senate, superintendent, constable, sheriff and more. Other key dates are as follows for the primary:

  • July 8: Mail-in ballots sent, in-person voting available
  • July 24: Last day to request a ballot in the mail
  • July 29: Last day to mail back a ballot
  • August 4: Election Day

Primary elections across the country earlier this spring were postponed or poorly ran. Wisconsin rushed to its April 7 primary where citizens waited hours to vote, lines stretched down sidewalks, weather conditions worsened throughout the day and only a select few polling places remained open in major cities. 

"There's never been a more challenging time to administer elections than during this pandemic," said Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes. "It is incredibly difficult to upend a series of plans that has been developing over the course of years within the matter of a couple weeks or months, and still pull off a quality election."

Fontes, who has been responsible for administering local and federal elections in Maricopa County since 2017, said his office is working to get young people registered and educated about the ways they will vote. 

Residents will be able to vote at voting centers, where they can cast a ballot at any location, no matter their address. Voting in person will look different than in years past, with poll workers receiving extensive training with modified setup protocols, such as tabulators being spaced out, more check-in stations and supplying hand sanitizer.

Fontes said voters will have multiple ways to assure their vote has been counted, from active tracking done with a barcode, as well as text message receipts and alerts sent by the recorder's office when the ballots arrive for counting.

With the current state of the pandemic, mail-in ballots are seen as a safer way to vote. Mail-in voting is a secure process, Fontes said. It allows for more accountable voting and is economically sufficient at the administrative level. Almost 58% of registered voters voted by an early voting paper method in the 2016 presidential election. And in the 2018 general election, about 52.5% of Maricopa residents voted by the same method. 

Fontes said voting by mail is a process used more and more often despite rhetoric from President Donald Trump that suggests the integrity of the process is unsafe and sways elections to one particular party. 

Fontes, research and experts said there is no data to indicate using a mail-in ballot has an impact on which party wins, and he hopes policies put in place each year will help residents feel more comfortable voting by mail.

READ MORE: Town hall displays new technology ahead of elections

"In Arizona, it is no-excuse absentee voting with prepaid postage," Fontes said. "A no-excuse format allows voters to simply request and then receive a ballot without having to submit an application explaining why they have chosen to do so."

In Maricopa County, Fontes said there are significant security measures in place to ensure ballots get to the right address and then back to the County Recorder without interference.

Stephen Richer, a Republican candidate for Maricopa County Recorder, said he expects the number of residents on the permanent early voting list to increase over the next few months due to the pandemic.

The list, established in 2007, has more than 1.6 million residents signed on to receive a ballot by mail. 

"Voting does not look like it did in Arizona 30 years ago, and I suspect voting 30 years from now will not look like how it looks right now," Richer said. 

In April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he could not guarantee the safety of in-person voting in November. Fontes said Maricopa County voters, some of which will vote in a primary in August, will have access to 60 voting centers two weeks before Election Day. 

"We don't operate on a four-year cycle, we operate planning out these elections constantly, sometimes with overlapping calendars," Fontes said, pointing to a quick decision in May over conducting the county's Democratic presidential preference election.

As election protocol changes, social activists denounce states for voter suppression, as many did with the late June primary in Kentucky. While roughly 75% of votes were cast absentee, and a plan in place for months allowed early and mail-in voting, celebrities and politicians said the one polling place in Louisville, the state's largest city, was silencing the Black vote.

A Politico reporter, however, quotes several experts who said state officials should look to the agreement made by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams to postpone the state's primary and revamp alternative methods for voting as an example to help maintain voter turnout and avoid in-person voting during the pandemic.

Richer said he would never want to stifle a debate, especially if someone thinks practiced methods could be improved. There are facts to disprove statements made by President Trump about mail-in methods, but the way democracy is conducted can always be improved, he added.

"Election officials are tasked with running elections, they're not tasked with determining policy," Richer said.

As the election draws near, changes could still be made to the process if coronavirus cases continue to increase, with the state surpassing 105,000 cases on Tuesday, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

"When you have one opportunity on one day to go to one place during a specific set of hours in order to exercise a fundamental right, and you balance that against the idea of having almost 30 days to have a ballot mailed to you, where you can take the time to do your research to vote conveniently at home – contemplate your choices," Fontes said.

Reach the reporter at pjhanse1@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen on Twitter. 

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