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Will the Coronavirus Affect the 50-Plus Vote?

See how the campaigns are changing, and how citizens will cast their votes

spinner image An I voted sticker being held by a person with a blue glove on their hand
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The coronavirus has put large parts of our lives on hold, but there’s one event it won’t delay. On Nov. 3, about 230 million Americans will be eligible to vote in what has been predicted to be the highest-turnout election in decades.

“More than anything, it’s important that our democratic institutions continue,” says John Hishta, AARP’s senior vice president for campaigns. “At the end of the day, this election is going to take place in the middle of a crisis and it’s important that we give voters an opportunity to vote.”

AARP offices across the country have been working with state and local election officials throughout the primary season, during which many contests have been postponed because of concerns over holding a traditional election while needing to maintain social distancing. AARP is also reaching out to members and all older adults to communicate any new rules and procedures that will be put in place to accommodate the safeguards needed during the pandemic.

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“We’ve already seen that some states that had restrictive absentee ballot laws are starting to ease those a little bit, and we’re going to continue to push for those restrictions to be lifted,” Hishta said.

For example, in Nebraska — one of the few states going ahead with its regularly scheduled primary, on Tuesday — AARP successfully persuaded the governor to send all voters an application for an absentee ballot and waged an education campaign to help older residents learn about this method of requesting a ballot and returning it.

“We reached out to our population to say this is an option; it’s the healthiest option, so please go ahead and send in your request form so you can get an absentee ballot mailed to you,” said Todd Stubbendieck, AARP Nebraska state director. A similar education campaign will be waged for the fall balloting.

In Pennsylvania, this year’s elections will be the first in which voters will not need a reason for requesting an absentee ballot. And since the pandemic began, several of the state’s large counties have been mailing primary absentee ballot applications to all voters. Gov. Tom Wolf announced this week that nearly 1 million Pennsylvanians have requested an absentee ballot for the June 2 primary.

AARP’s Pennsylvania staff has been working to educate members through tele-town halls, robocalls, social media and advertisements about their right to an absentee ballot. 

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More than anything, it’s important that our democratic institutions continue. At the end of the day, this election is going to take place in the middle of a crisis and it’s important that we give voters an opportunity to vote.

— John Hishta, AARP’s senior vice president for campaigns

“We have been hearing from people that they haven’t gone out and socialized, that they want to stay as healthy as possible,” said William Johnston-Walsh, AARP’s Pennsylvania state director. “And so they’re afraid. They say: I want to do my duty. I think it’s important that I have a say over who’s elected, but I’m not going to risk my health for that.’ So that’s why AARP is continuing to push for different avenues to make sure that they have that ability to be able to vote.”

Here are some frequently asked questions about what to expect this fall.

Will an election still occur in November?

Yes. Federal law mandates that Election Day for president be on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November,” every fourth year, without exception. The only way that could change is if Congress passed a law and President Trump signed it between now and then. The chance of that happening is near zero. Also note that the 20th Amendment mandates that the terms of the president and vice president must expire at noon on Jan. 20. That, too, is inviolable. 

So even if the pandemic is still raging, the president can’t postpone the election?

Correct, says Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Based on current law, “the president really has no direct power over elections,” Norden says. 

So what must be done to make sure we can all vote safely?

Republican Paul Pate, Iowa’s secretary of state, says every state is going to have to tweak its election system to meet its voters’ needs. Here are some options.

  • More of us will vote by mail. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — already vote completely by mail. In California, Nebraska and North Dakota, a number of counties already vote that way.
  • Absentee balloting likely will be made easier. Every state allows absentee balloting, although some require a specific excuse to get an absentee ballot. Pate, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, and Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, say many states will be considering whether to relax those rules. 
  • Early voting likely will be expanded. As of early April, 40 states and the District of Columbia planned to schedule early voting this fall. This stretches out the time for voting, usually over several weeks leading up to Election Day.

“Our goal is to make sure we have made the elections as accessible as possible for everybody,” Pate says. Just don’t expect to be voting via computer. Creating a secure, reliable online voting system will take years and must be done separately by each state. 

Still, we can have a safe, inclusive election, Perez says. “In the height of the Civil War, a presidential election took place. An election took place in the height of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. And they didn’t have the internet or vote by mail.”

Does this mean we won’t be able to vote in person anymore this year?

No. “I do think people are still going to vote on Election Day in person,” Norden says. “But I don’t think it’s going to be to the same degree that we’ve seen in previous presidential elections.” The experience will probably be different. 

  • Some jurisdictions may consolidate polling places because more early and absentee voting will likely lead to fewer people going to the polls Nov. 3.
  • Individual polling booths will probably be farther apart, and election officials will take greater health and safety precautions. 
  • Officials will try to expand the hiring of poll workers to reduce the reliance on older Americans, out of concern for their safety.

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