2020 Elections Oral History Project | No Plan for a Pandemic

At the start of 2020, election officials across the country were busy. Anyone in the election community will tell you that presidential years are crazy, and this one was no exception. Across the country, officials were buying new voting machines, shoring up their defenses, implementing state-level changes to processes passed by legislatures or referendums, and more. They also continued to participate in the programs and meetings organized by CISA, EI-ISAC, NASS, NASED, the EAC, and more. Despite the craziness, this activity was all business as usual. 

 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“Our governor put us into lockdown the weekend before presidential primary…we were really naive about what the impact was going to be.”

Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Washington State

Like Secretary Wyman alluded to, the start of the pandemic coincided with the presidential primary season. Prior to COVID-19’s emergence in the United States, the primary was at the top of the news cycle. In late February and early March, the coronavirus, its lockdowns and death tolls, came to the fore. Declaring public health emergencies, several states rescheduled or delayed their presidential primaries or shifted to mail-in voting.

Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State

Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State

Tina Barton, Senior Program Advisor at the US Election Assistance Commission

Tina Barton, Senior Program Advisor at the US Election Assistance Commission

Gabe Sterling, Georgia Secretary of State

Gabe Sterling, Georgia Secretary of State

Officials in states that still had in-person primaries found themselves tasked with figuring out how to administer an election safely with limited time and even more limited resources. They faced a myriad of challenges. Many jurisdictions had polling locations in senior centers or assisted living communities which were no longer open to the public. 

“I get a phone call on the weekend saying ‘Clerk Barton we’re not going to be able to allow you to have the precinct here on Tuesday.’”

Tina Barton, Senior Program Advisor at the US Election Assistance Commission

 

They also lost poll workers, who tended to be 65 or older and thus part of a vulnerable population, by the dozens.

“The average age of of an election worker is 74. They are already at risk.”

Tina Barton, Senior Program Advisor at the US Election Assistance Commission

New locations needed to be found and workers needed to be trained. PPE, which was in short supply, then needed to be procured to protect the safety of voters. 

“Our purchasing team were up in the middle in the night bidding on products to make sure we were going to have the PPE that we needed.”

Tina Barton, Senior Program Advisor at the US Election Assistance Commission

Election officials were balancing all of this in conjunction with processing increased volumes of mail-in and early vote ballots. Most states already offered vote-by-mail, and, given the public safety and polling location constraints, officials across the country encouraged voters to take advantage of the absentee or early voting options already available to them. Some states even went so far as to mail voters absentee ballot applications or absentee ballots themselves, something they had never done before. Many states and localities also expanded early voting. Several large cities used sports stadiums or arenas as voting locations, or they offered drive-thru voting. In the end, more voters voted in-person or by mail before election day than in any election in American history.

Kathy Boockvar, Former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Kathy Boockvar, Former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Meagan Wolfe, Elections Commission Administrator

Meagan Wolfe, Elections Commission Administrator

All of these changes then needed to be communicated effectively to voters. State and local officials built and updated websites, sent newsletters, worked with community groups, made signs, blasted social media, and more to let their voters know about changes.

 

“I even took out an entire page in our local newspaper and had the entire page nothing but where the precincts were located.”

Tina Barton

But these communications were occurring in an environment that was not just chaotic and uncertain because of COVID-19 — it was actively malicious. Domestic social media influencers and political leaders smeared vote-by-mail procedures as inherently fraudulent, and cast officials that expanded access to mail-in ballots as willfully committing election fraud. 

“The President of the United States was conflating fraudulent elections with vote by mail elections.”

Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Washington State

Furthermore, there was a clear partisan component to this brand of misinformation. 

“My job isn’t to help Republicans or hurt Democrats or vice versa. My job is to represent every voter in the state.”

Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Washington State

Like Wyman, election officials in every state regardless of party worked overtime to dispel lies and ensure that the upcoming presidential election — which, it became increasingly clear, would have to be run similarly to the primaries — would go off without a hitch.  

Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State

Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State

By November, the election community was prepared to run what would ultimately be–despite claims to the contrary–the most secure election in U.S. history. 

“I can tell you that Ohios election officials did their sweating in the summer of 2020 so that when we went into battle on election day we were ready.”

Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State