States election adaptations during the pandemic: A Q&A with Zachary Courser and Eric Helland | American Enterprise Institute


COVID-19 forced
states to make myriad adjustments to their elections administration in order to
ensure sufficient access to the ballot. Changes included expanding voter access
to the use of absentee ballots, extending voter registration deadlines, and
increasing the number of polling places, among others. How well did states do
in adapting their elections administration?

To answer this question, I turned to Professor Zachary Courser and Professor Eric Helland. They co-direct Claremont McKenna College’s Policy Lab, an interdisciplinary policy research program that teaches students policy writing and research skills that prepare students for work in legislatures, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations. Zach, Eric, and their Policy Lab students spent the past year examining states’ emergency election statutes and election administration adaptations during the pandemic, and they have some interesting findings.

Overall, how well did states adapt their election administration to the

Courser and Helland: If you consider the
primary goal of election administration to be promoting the highest possible
turnout, then generally speaking states did an excellent job. Despite the
various challenges states were faced with due to the pandemic, turnout was over
66 percent of the eligible population, up 7 percent from 2016. And turnout was
up in every state, with a high of 14.6 percent in Hawaii and a low of 2.5
percent in Oklahoma.

People stand in line to cast their Election Day vote at Cedar Bluff Middle School in Knoxville on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Via REUTERS

Of course, elections administration is
about more than just turnout. It’s also about providing equal and open access
to the vote, ensuring the integrity of the ballot, and a fair and open canvass.
Access is of particular concern during a pandemic, as the real or perceived
risk posed by in-person voting could have a chilling effect on people’s desire
or ability to vote. Therefore, we decided to focus on how states adapted their
elections to make them accessible during the COVID emergency.

and your students created a scorecard to measure states’ adaptations to make
voting accessible during the pandemic. How did you create the scorecard, and
which states scored highest?

Before the election, we evaluated state
statutes dealing with elections emergencies to understand the legal framework
for adaptation during an emergency, and then tracked all the adaptations that
states took to ensure access to voting for the general election. We then
analyzed which measures were most likely to have an effect on increasing access
during the pandemic and assigned each a score accordingly. Adaptations
clustered in four main categories: vote-by-mail, drop-off boxes, deadline adjustments,
and polling place adjustments. We assigned measures for mail-in voting the
highest point value, as we think they did the most to protect health and
promote perceptions of safety during the pandemic. As a result, states that
already had all-mail elections, or adapted by increasing access to absentee
balloting, tended to score higher.

The average grade was a C, and as you can
see from the map below, the highest scoring states clustered in the west.
Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah all score A’s, with New Jersey scoring the
highest in the nation. Southern states were laggards on access generally,
scoring the lowest as a region — with most states rating a D or F. Missouri
scored the lowest in the nation.

Map of 2020 State Elections
Emergency Modification Scorecard

factor was the largest determinant in affecting how states adapted elections
administration to the pandemic, and to what degree?

We found that the political response to
COVID-19 was heavily influenced by partisanship. A bipartisan national
consensus never fully formed over the degree to which the pandemic threatened
public health. Mail-in balloting, once a fairly anodyne elections tool that was
used by both parties in various states, became an object of criticism by
Republicans wary of its potential to undermine the integrity of the election.
While these worries were proved to be baseless, the partisan rancor that
surrounded the election affected how states chose to respond to the pandemic in
modifying their elections to accommodate greater access. Due to the
polarization of views over pandemic response and mail-in balloting, state
actions to modify elections were largely predicated on their partisanship. As
you can see in the scatterplot below, Democratic states tended to make changes
to maximize access, while Republican states took lesser strides. 

Scatterplot of Election Emergency Score and Partisanship

is interesting that despite this partisan trend, states that scored highly
included Republican states like Montana, Ohio, and Utah, which chose Trump over

There is an old assumption in electoral
politics that higher vote accessibility tends toward a higher turnout for Democrats.
For example, we’ve all heard the old saw about how inclement weather, like rain
or snow, depresses Democratic turnout. More seriously, Republicans in various
states have for years pursued measures to increase demands on voters to access
the ballot. In pursuing this policy, there is an explicit concern for ensuring
the integrity of the ballot and discouraging fraud. Implicitly, there was a
political expectation that these laws would also tend to favor Republican
turnout. In the 2020 election, Republican concerns about ballot access
broadened to include all forms of mail-in voting. This is largely due to
then-President Donald Trump’s insistence that mail-in voting was ripe for

As you point out, among outliers like
Montana, Ohio, and Utah, higher levels of ballot access did exist in Republican
states. Montana law assigns the governor to make elections adaptations, and the
state had a Democratic governor. Utah law also gives adaptation authority to
its governor, Republican Spencer Cox, who was no fan of Donald Trump and
automatically sent mail-in ballots to all voters. Ohio had a very messy
experience in their March primary, partly due to their election code that has
unclear and overlapping authorities making adaptations during an emergency. The
confusion resulted in low turnout and likely influenced Ohio’s efforts to
better manage access during the general election.

to COVID-19’s arrival, some states had election emergency laws on their books.
Florida, for example, has one of the most extensive elections emergency
statutes in the country, covering everything from
canceling and rescheduling an election to requiring that polls have emergency
guidelines. Did those statutes improve states’ efforts to adapt to the

We compared accessibility scores to
states’ election emergencies legislation before the 2020 general election.
There was no relationship between whether a state did not have any elections
emergency provisions in law, required a general emergency declaration, or had
specific laws that detailed authority in elections emergencies. For example,
Massachusetts and Rhode Island, both of which have no mention of elections
emergencies in their state laws, both earned a ‘B’ on the scorecard. Iowa and
Oklahoma, which have specific election emergency statues, both earned a ‘D.’

There is some evidence that pre-2020
state elections laws had some positive impact on their measures to increase
access to voting during the pandemic. However, it seems likely that a state’s
mail-in balloting laws pre-2020 tended to predict their election modifications
during the pandemic. For example, states that already had unconditional
absentee balloting or all mail-in elections did better in increasing access.
Overall, a state’s partisanship was correlated with enacting modifications to
increase accessibility, particularly those involving unrestricted mail-in
voting. It seems likely that partisan differences on the legitimacy of mail-in
balloting and how much of a risk COVID posed to public health largely
determined the degree to which states pursued increasing vote access in the
2020 general election.

states empower the governor to alter elections administration, rather than
require the legislature to convene and enact alterations. Were these states
better able to change their election access policies?

We looked at which state governmental authority had the power to issue election emergency interventions before 2020, to examine any relationship between how such powers are designated and states’ overall performance in 2020 election administration. We examined this by calculating the GPA of states with different election emergency decision-makers. We used a standard 4.0 GPA scale, where an A equals a 4 and an F equals zero, to calculate the average state GPA for each group.

Comparing across the various types of
authority designation, local authority control fared poorest in promoting
accessibility. States that granted executives the power to issue election
emergency interventions scored more than twice as well as local authorities in
promoting accessibility. This may indicate that entrusting state executives
with the power to issue emergency interventions is superior to investing local
authorities. However, states that had no authority specified in law scored
nearly as high as those that defined state executives. Whatever variation there
is in how states responded to the 2020 elections emergency, it is not
well-explained by their emergency election powers statutes.

Vern Green, a county employee, disinfects voting tables after each voter Tuesday, November 3 in Exhibition Hall at Montana ExpoPark.11032020 Election Day N

thing we have heard elected officials and media repeatedly claim is that
alterations to elections policies during the pandemic affected voters’ views of
the legitimacy of the presidential results. In short, lots of changes to how
people vote elicited lots of public doubt. Is this claim accurate?

We evaluated voter perceptions of
legitimacy by examining confidence in the fairness of the election and in the
accuracy of the vote count in the 2020 general election. We compared survey
data on perceptions of fairness to state scores on election accessibility. We
found a positive association with the scorecard and perceptions of fairness.
However, the correlation between partisanship and measures of legitimacy are
much higher than with our scorecard. This suggests that the partisan
composition of a state was more highly correlated with perceptions of
legitimacy than was a states’ emergency election modifications during the

are the policy implications of the research you’ve done on accessibility during
the 2020 general election?

Given the unique and polarized partisan
cast election policy took in the 2020 general election, it is difficult to draw
many useful policy recommendations from the experience of the pandemic for the
consideration of a national elections emergency policy. This is particularly
true given the record national turnout across the country, despite the wide
variation in how states adapted their elections to the pandemic. Moreover, the
pandemic itself presented unique and unusual emergency conditions: While the
sudden shutdown of the country in March of 2020 caused confusion and disruption
to the presidential primaries, states had months to plan and adapt to the
pandemic by the time of the general election. Lastly, emergencies that affect
the elections of the entire nation are uncommon, as are global pandemics at the
scale and threat of COVID-19.

While there may not yet be clear policy
implications drawn from the experience of the 2020 general election, there
still remains a question of what effect increased accessibility had on turnout.
This is an interesting and increasingly relevant question, as Republicans in
state legislatures are actively pursuing policies to curtail even the modest
increases in ballot access that were made to adapt to the pandemic. Democrats
argue that narrowing access to voting leads to voter suppression, and
particularly undermines the voting ability of minorities. We will continue our
work by examining turnout and learn how voters responded to election modifications
during the 2020 general election. We believe our findings would help inform the
current state-level debate regarding vote access.

Thank you, Zach and Eric.

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