Election 2020: Voting Concerns Now Include COVID-19

By Alison Laurio

American flag, statue of Liberty, coronavirus orbs

The top headline, from NPR on April 5, and those from the Associated Press and the New York Times, both on March 31, highlight the concern and uncertainty many are feeling as the national election approaches during the outbreak of a deadly virus.

Because NASW is among those who view this presidential election as critically important, it will keep members informed and offer them options on how to help, said Melvin Wilson, NASW’s senior policy consultant for social justice and human rights.

“The 2020 election is really, really important to us as an association and to the populations we serve,” Wilson said. “We want to make sure we have someone (in office) who can support our values with those vulnerable populations: social justice, economic justice and justice for immigrant communities.”

Vote 2020

NASW is kicking off its 2020 election initiative, which includes events and activities like voter engagement, mobilization and participation. The association also is involved with other coalitions and nonprofits.

“There are a ton of tool kits we can share with our members,” Wilson said.

The focus is on the national election, but downballot state and local elections also are important, he said, and values like fairness and inclusion are essential at all levels.

“We want to make sure candidates address economic concerns like Medicare,” Wilson said. “There are ongoing activities, and we will continue to inform members about any collaboration with other organizations.”

The organizations include Voto Latino; the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; the Voting Rights Task Force; Rock the Vote; Nonprofit VOTE; and National Voter Registration Day. There is collaboration between NASW and Social Work Votes on the voter registration initiative, Wilson said, and members can access the information and tool kits of Rock the Vote, Nonprofit VOTE and Voto Latino on those websites.

Felons’ Rights in Florida

When looking at voting in Florida, remember the state is controlled by the Republican Party—the governorship and the state’s House and Senate, said James H. Akin, the NASW Florida Chapter’s executive director, “so they pretty much set the rules.”

Issues in the 2018 midterms included efforts to restrict some voting sites and rules on how late polling places remained open, he said. “There weren’t any massive issues for the public. It’s just not as easy as it should be.”

This year, Florida held a presidential preference primary election on March 17, and its primary election is Aug. 18.

“NASW always supports everyone having the right to vote,” said Akin, who believes there should be early voting.

Unknown at this point is how COVID-19 concerns will impact voting, and whether there will be more mail-in ballots, he said. “We will see some of this in the Aug. 18 primary. I think the biggest issue will be the impact of the virus. In Florida, when we have a presidential election, you’re going to have a lot of people coming out. The legislature races are all contested, and I think we will be voting on issues.”

“The importance of voting and getting the turnout—to me, that is the key,” he said. “It’s kind of an obvious point, but it’s really going to matter.” The chapter will be doing anything it can to help, he added.

“Social work is involved in every aspect, from campaigns with national organizations to get out the vote to getting students involved,” Akin said. “I do think that’s the key. Social workers understand the importance of people voting.”

One big factor is a 2018 state constitutional amendment granting voting rights for released felons. After it passed, restrictions were added, including that unpaid fines and costs must be paid before voting rights were restored, he said. That was taken to court, then state appeals court, which ruled in February the addition was unconstitutional. The ruling could be challenged.

Akin said the amendment impacts 1.4 million voters and is expected to be settled before the national election. “It’s a major battle here in Florida, so we’ll see if it will have a major influence on the election, like the court ruling one way or another. I think it’s not over with. If there’s no ruling, they may be in limbo.”

Another factor is the state has a large group of people who are registered as Independent, resulting in voters being about one third each Democrat, Republican and Independent, Akin said. In addition, the influx of Puerto Rican residents in central Florida, who moved in after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, now “are an important part of the state vote,” he said. Florida went from a population of 480,000 Puerto Ricans in 2000 to more than 1.2 million in 2017, according to Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub.

Gerrymandering in North Carolina

red stripes, a line of people

In North Carolina, “gerrymandering was and is very much real,” said Valerie Arendt, NASW North Carolina executive director.

District maps were redrawn in 2010, and a 2012 court decision found the maps “were gerrymandered with razor precision” in favor of the Republicans in power, particularly in Democratic areas, she said.

They were redrawn in 2012, leaving 10 Republican and three Democratic congressional districts, even though the area had a roughly 50-50 split with some unaffiliated residents, Arendt said. “The districts were unbalanced,” she said, and the court found they were, so in 2019 they again were redrawn.

“They’re much better,” Arendt said. “They’re not perfect, but the way they did it, it’s a better balance for both the congressional and the Senate districts.”

During the period districts were gerrymandered, from 2014 to 2016, the state legislature passed “a lot of laws to limit voting hours,” she said, and the courts also decided those were 100 percent voter suppression. The courts also ruled other issues unconstitutional, including a 2016 voter ID law, although that did not stop its proponents from getting it on the 2018 ballot as an addition to the state constitution because the court decision had found that was the only way to add it, Arendt said.

“There are so many reasons why that is a barrier for people to vote,” she said. “Some can’t drive, some can’t leave home, others have to work.”

The court did issue a temporary stay, and in February it defeated the requirement. “We continue to work with our partners to ensure voting accessibility for all individuals, including communities of color,” Arendt said. “There were a lot of ups and downs, a lot of victories and setbacks, but there will be no ID required in the November elections.”

She is waiting to see how the coronavirus impacts the ability of people to get to the polls. While absentee voting exists, the barriers are in the requirements. No ID is required, but ballots must be marked in the presence of two witnesses or a notary, and somebody must sign it, she said.

After Hurricane Dorian struck the Outer Banks in September 2019, the legislature held a special session. “It was supposed to be about hurricane relief, but they also changed some of the voting laws,” Arendt said. “They cut a number of polling places, reduced hours, shortened early voting time and took away Sunday voting. It was pretty significant. Instead of making it more accessible, they made it more difficult.”

That followed moves that had split college campus voting districts in half to limit student participation, voices “we particularly need in our elections,” she said. “It’s a work in progress. We hope we have courts that will uphold voting and citizens’ rights to vote.”

When it comes to voting impact, a big unknown is COVID-19. A short legislative session was set for April, but it’s unknown how it would be addressed, Arendt said. “I think it’s important to start considering this."

Arendt said the chapter develops a voter guide every year, because laws change every year. “It’s a big resource for folks. We are making sure they have the information they need to participate in our democracy.”

Pandemic Primary

The day before Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary election, the state Supreme Court overturned an order by Gov. Tony Evers that postponed the election to June 9 because of the public health risk from the coronavirus. Hours later, the state Supreme Court sided with the Republican-controlled legislature, which had challenged the order.

The U.S. Supreme Court, on the same day, weighed in with its ruling against Wisconsin Democrats, who had asked for an extension for absentee ballots. The nation’s high court said all primary-election ballots must be counted by Election Day on Tuesday, April 7.

“The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the dissenters. “By cutting off the absentee ballot extension, she wrote, the court’s decision forces voters to choose between endangering their safety by showing up in person or losing their right to vote.”

News reports stated the number of polling places in Milwaukee had been reduced from 180 to only five. Many poll workers said they were not going to work at the polls, so the National Guard was called in to replace them.

NASW-Wisconsin Executive Director Marc D. Herstand said the history of voter suppression began when Republicans in the state passed a voter ID bill in 2011.

“A number of groups sounded the alarm,” he said. Several court challenges later, the law went into effect in time for the 2016 election. Some residents were not able to vote. They had no birth certificate, couldn’t afford to get one, and many didn’t have a driver’s license, Herstand said. “There are a lot of concerns about voter ID. If college students are from another state and have no driver’s license, they can’t use a student ID.”

“If someone is turned away (at the polls), they’re unlikely to come back. And some who are poor or elderly or disabled don’t have a driver’s license at all. They can’t travel to get a birth certificate. There really are big barriers to people just to vote,” he said, “and people have found the level of (voter) fraud is miniscule.”

Herstand said the various methods, promoted by Republicans, “are just another barrier that prevent people from voting. One state senator heard on tape admitted (the voter ID bill) was going to help Republicans, so it’s pretty clear why they did it.”

Like in North Carolina, gerrymandering is an issue, he said. It happened when Republicans swept the 2010 midterm election. “Republicans spent $1 million at taxpayers’ expense, hired lawyers, and drew lines that probably are the most gerrymandered in the country.”

“In the 2018 elections, social workers were very active,” Herstand said. “In 2020 we are committed to hire a political organization for the first time. We also are trying to do a reception at the Democratic National Convention. Illinois also is involved with that.”

He said they are planning events, including social work canvas day and social work phone sessions, “where we will go down to headquarters and all make calls together.” Social workers also are organizing within college campuses so students can go out on weekends and encourage people to get out and vote.

“Some social work students in the past were more involved than the general public,” he said. “So there’s interest there. And social workers can write letters to editors, call in to talk shows and put out lawn signs. There are many things they can do to get involved in the election, and that can make a big difference.”

Helping at polling places is another option, Herstand said. “One thing I’ve done when I’ve monitored the polls is make sure no suppression is going on. And if there are long lines at the polls, people can call attorneys who can intervene if suppression is going on. I’ve done that.”

“Another time I and one other social worker knocked on doors to make sure people were going to vote, maybe remind them to vote and insure they have proper ID,” he said. “There are a lot of social justice groups people can get involved with, too.”

Voting Is Social Work

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting existing weaknesses in our election system and presenting significant new challenges to safe, widely accessible, inclusive and secure elections. States and municipalities are unprepared to meet these new challenges, and Congress has yet to address the issue with sufficient funding or legislation, said Tanya Rhodes Smith, instructor in residence and director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work in Hartford, Conn.

Organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice have issued detailed policy recommendations for Congress, states and municipalities that include expanding online voter registration, expanding mail-in voting options and making voting in person accessible and safe, she said.

Election laws and policies are determined state-by-state, and no single approach works for all populations, particularly those who face the most challenges to voting—Native Americans; low-income individuals; non-English speakers; individuals with a felony conviction; and the elderly, Rhodes Smith said.

Recommendations require immediate funding and planning. For example, 12 states offer no online system for voter registration or to update current registration, she said. “Also, all states need to prepare immediately for a dramatic increase in absentee ballots, which should be streamlined, more accessible and less restrictive.”

Voting should be easy, accessible and secure, especially for those who face the most barriers and have the most risk from the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

The pandemic also threatens the 2020 census, Rhodes Smith said, which determines political representation, as well as $1.5 trillion in annual funding for health care, safety net programs, education, infrastructure and more— and future investments in our states, towns and communities.

“Social workers serve all of the communities at risk for being under-counted and can play a critical role in addressing people’s fears and helping them respond,” Rhodes Smith said. They also are well-positioned as trusted voices to engage voters—especially non-voters who are least likely to be included in campaign outreach and public discourse.

“Voting is a human right and the most important tool for ensuring the government responds to citizens’ needs, including health care, housing, food, education and safety,” Rhodes Smith said.

Low voter turnout means reduced political power and resources, and social workers can help boost turnout in many and important ways.

“Nonpartisan voter engagement is legal, ethical and central to social work’s mission and impact,” Rhodes Smith said. “Those in direct practice can help clients navigate structural barriers, build civic literacy, share nonpartisan information and undo the narrative that voting doesn’t matter to people’s lives.”

Social workers also can join voting rights groups to advocate for resources and policies, and educators can teach students why voting matters to the impact of social work. Those in the field and those studying can volunteer as election workers and monitors in primaries and the November election, she said.

“Finally, everyone in the profession should be addressing myths, providing assistance and encouraging every person and family to participate in the 2020 Census,” Rhodes Smith said.

Social workers can go to votingissocialwork.org for more information, resources and tools, and they can join the campaign, she said.


round stickers that read I voted today; my vote counts; vote

Vote at Home Institute Makes its Case

The National Vote at Home institute reported in 2018 that 42 million ballots were mailed out nationally, up from 33 million in 2014. This year, there could be more than 50 million.

Voting at home is secured and time tested. Ballots are mailed weeks before election day. Voters can mark and return them in person or by mail.

The system has proven to be highly secure and engages more voters while significantly lowering costs.

Vote at home puts voters’ needs and convenience first.

It empowers voters. They can decide when to vote and vote from their homes ... no time off work, driving to a polling place or standing in lines that can be long. All voters automatically receive ballots in the mail. They can return them by mail, bring them to a drop-off location or vote in person.

Vote at home ensures the security of election results.

The use of paper ballots, which it relies on, is more secure, and it leaves a paper trail helping election security.

Vote at home has a proven track record and it saves money.

It builds on the long-trusted and well-ingrained absentee voting process, with layers of checks and balances to ensure election integrity. Jurisdictions using it have significant cost savings, and it has been embraced in red, blue and purple states. In the 2018 midterms, 69 percent of all votes cast in the West were mailed ballots.

voteathome.org (Vote at Home’s annual report: voteathome.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/VAH-Annual-report-2019-v-1.0.pdf)

States Weigh In

Rhode Island

Common Cause Rhode Island, the ACLU of Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island urged state election officials in March to “safeguard the health of voters while protecting their right to vote.” The state was moving toward its first predominant mail balloting for its June presidential primary. The groups’ recommendations include:

  • Extend the deadline for receiving absentee ballot applications and voted ballots, and allow them to be submitted postage paid.
  • Require a single witness signature rather than two witness signatures and notarization.
  • Create a bilingual voter assistance hotline.
  • Ensure an adequate number of polling places can accommodate those with disabilities and others who might not be able to vote by mail ballot.
  • Make ballot drop boxes available throughout the state.
  • Require municipalities to submit plans for dealing with emergency ballots.



Citing the threat of COVID-19, the ACLU of Georgia in March sent the secretary of state five suggestions to protect mail-in absentee voters and ensure an effective process. The recommendations include:

  • Send ALL registered voters mail-in absentee applications.
  • Provide prepaid postage and self-sealing envelopes.
  • Print enough mail-in absentee ballot applications and envelopes to account for the potential need to mail absentee ballots to every registered voter. This should be done immediately as COVID-19 could unexpectedly impact printer vending capacity.
  • Mount a public education campaign to inform voters of their options in casting their ballots. This must be advertised in multiple languages and easily accessible to voters with disabilities.
  • Instructional aids like how-to infographics and videos on completing the applications and the ballots should be included in education campaigns so ballots will not be rejected for inadvertent technical errors.
  • Move the deadline for mail-in absentee
  • ballots to be counted so ballots need only
  • to be postmarked by election day and can arrive within three days of the election in
  • order to be counted.


For information about voting in your state, visit vote.org

Voting is Social Work

Nonpartisan voter engagement is legal, ethical and professional and central to social work values and mission.

Communities with high voter turnout report greater well-being, and more resources and attention from elected officials.

Voting gives people and communities the power to voice their opinion and effect social change.


NCSL: State Laws Differ on Mail Voting

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah currently conduct all of their elections entirely by mail. Laws allow designated smaller elections—like a school board election—to be conducted by mail in at least 21 other states, the National Conference of State Legislatures says in a story posted March 24 on its website.

The method is virtually the same for all:

  • Voters receive a ballot in the mail.
  • They mark it, place it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then a mailing envelope, sign an exterior affidavit and drop it off or mail it.

Since ballots are mailed ahead of Election Day, they have “an election period, not just a single day to vote.” Referred to as vote by mail, voters still can vote in person on or before Election Day, the NCSL says.

States commonly have begun with all-mail elections in “certain circumstances,” and add more opportunities for mail voting as residents become familiar with the procedures, the NCSL says. Oregon, for example, did so before residents voted to make Oregon the first all-mail election state in 1998.

Some states allow counties to “opt into conducting all elections by mail.” Those are California, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Each has its own limitations and guidelines. Nebraska, for example, allows it for a county with less than 10,000 inhabitants. The county must apply to the secretary of state.

Other states permit some elections to be conducted by mail, including Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming. Each has its own rules or requirements, like permitting mail voting if the election issue is nonpartisan or is not held in conjunction with a primary, general or statewide special election.

Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico permit certain jurisdictions—or portions of one—to be “designated as all-mail based on population.”

NCSL says possible advantages to mail voting are voter convenience, financial savings, and increased turnout. Possible disadvantages include loss of tradition with the civic experience; disparate effect on some populations, like many Native Americans on reservations who do not have street addresses; security, like the possible coercion by a family member; financial considerations, like required initial purchasing of different equipment; and slower vote counting.


“The importance of voting and getting the turnout—to me, that is the key... It’s kind of an obvious point, but it’s really going to matter.”
James H. Akin, NASW-FL Executive Director

voting booths and flyers with flags

Increasing Voter Participation

NASW is engaging and mobilizing for the 2020 Presidential Election season.

Learn about NASW's 2020 Election Initiative

“The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

mail-in ballot and rural mailbox
“One thing I’ve done when I’ve monitored the polls is make sure no suppression is going on. And if there are long lines at the polls, people can call attorneys who can intervene if suppression is going on. I’ve done that.”
Marc D. Herstand, NASW-WI Executive Director

official mail-in ballot
“Voting is a human right and the most important tool for ensuring the government responds to citizens’ needs, including health care, housing, food, education and safety.”
Tanya Rhodes Smith, director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work