Auburn professors talk about voting, polling locations in advance of Election Day

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This year’s Election Day will be unlike any before, and many voters still have trepidations and questions as uncertainty swirls just six weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 vote. Auburn Political Science professors Bridgett A. King and Kathleen Hale, experts on elections and voting, recently participated in separate national panel discussions and offered their thoughts on everything from what in-person voting might look like logistically amid the COVID-19 pandemic and whether they expect people to vote in person or by mail, to a possible shortage of poll workers and local funding and what local election officials are doing to prepare for all types of contingencies.


Do you think most people will choose to vote in person or via mail, given the concern about the coronavirus?

King: While there is a push for voting by mail, there is a considerable lack of trust with participating that way. So, what we will more than likely see is voters who choose to still vote in person. A recent poll suggested that 52 percent of voters plan to vote in person, either early or on Election Day.

How might polling locations be set up differently as organizers adhere to social distancing guidelines to protect against the spread of COVID-19?

King: In light of the 2020 election, and particularly COVID-19, what voters experience who vote in person will be vastly unique and different from what they’ve previously experienced. When thinking about what the interior of a polling location might look like, one consideration that has to be made is where people are standing. There are concerns about being comfortable in physical spaces to cast a ballot. To address this, one thing that can be considered is layout. What voters might see is equipment that is adjusted in terms of layout for physical distancing.

In addition to considering where a voter is actually physically standing when they arrive to vote—whether that be in front of a ballot-marking device, in a voting booth, at check-in or at an optical scanner—there is the need to, beyond the personal physical space, add an additional six feet while making sure that six feet does not overlay too far with another person’s six feet.

You want to create an environment where there is clear direction with how voters are to enter and exit the system. Another thing I, along with my research partners Dr. Gretchen Macht and Dr. Jennifer Lather have been considering in our conversations with local election officials over the summer is the establishment of a three-foot unidirectional path so that you can effectively direct voters in and out. This would be similar to the arrows you might experience when you go to your local grocery store. The goal being to ensure that voters aren’t unnecessarily physically interacting with each other. In polling locations, considering the physical distancing requirements necessary for COVID, there may be reductions in the distribution of equipment in different polling locations.

I think that, regardless of the changes, it’s important to communicate to voters that these changes are being made in an effort to promote safety—or the specific safety of voters who, for a variety of reasons, choose to vote in person—because no two polling locations are the same.

There have been many reports of a dire need for poll workers in various states. What are state officials doing to prevent that, and do you think we will have a shortage on Election Day?

King: According to the 2018 Voting and Administration Survey conducted by the Election Assistance Commission, 70 percent of the 6,500 jurisdictions in all 50 states reported that it was very difficult or somewhat difficult to get enough poll workers. So, the challenge of recruiting poll workers isn’t necessarily new this year. It’s just been exacerbated by COVID-19.

In March in Tennessee, there was legislation passed that lowered the age requirement to serve as a poll worker. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the council approved a resolution that would allow county employees to receive paid leave if serving as poll workers in the November election. Even here in Alabama, there’s been a push to get more poll workers, and I believe they’ve increased the pay for serving as a poll worker. So, I haven’t seen anything that says there are explicit trends with respect to whether the shortages are in urban or rural areas, but COVID-19 has made a challenging part of election administration all the more challenging. I will say we do see a lot more responsiveness on the part of administrative authorities in creating new avenues to encourage people to serve as poll workers.

Can you talk about where funding for local election offices comes from?

Hale: Local election offices get their resources in a really straightforward way. The bulk of it comes from local, general funds from county commissioners. There are some funds that come in from state offices, but these are not uniform and don’t cover local costs. Federal funds, particularly in the area of security—both for cybersecurity and related to COVID and the pandemic—are very, very welcomed. These funds are typically allocated to very specific purposes, so they’re not always easy to fenagle into general operating activities. Most of these funds go to state offices, and the states provide important support and critical infrastructure support, for sure.

The local election office is where voters meet the election process—the local government infrastructure, the polling sites, the vote centers, the drop boxes. This is where elections are real to the voters, and this is where public trust has to be supported. We’ve created an indirect path to provide funds to local offices where this trust can be fostered, but perhaps we haven’t provided enough in this area. These general operating funds are the funds that can be used to provide professionalization for staff, training and information sharing and to support the best practices that we know can improve election operating performance.

Do you have any concerns about resources that are being made available to those entities?

Hale: In research I have done with Mitchell Brown, we’ve found that the local election office’s share of a county budget was 0.5 percent. They compete for this money alongside every other general function of county government, most of which is much more visible 365 days a year. This is not new in any way, and the current circumstances are simply highlighting the under-resourced nature of the local system, even before the pandemic was on the horizon. State and local resources are not expected to increase anytime soon. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. So, we’re engaged in a really important conversation about what’s happening now, about what can be done now and about public policy choices, ultimately. Maybe they’ll be good, maybe they won’t. Maybe we’ll agree, and maybe we’ll disagree.

I’d like to plant the seed for better understanding going forward about the difference between the public policy choices and the hard choices that are made in local offices about how to implement those decisions and whether we’ve given local offices the capacity they need in order to do what we’re asking them to do. There is no question the efforts of state and local election officials and their federal partners have been heroic over the last few months and over the last year. Maybe thinking about how to set a platform and lay the groundwork for a more stable and improved system would serve us all well.

Any other thoughts about the upcoming elections?

King: I think it’s important to communicate to the public that different states have different laws and different timelines, and because something is taking longer in one state versus another does not mean something nefarious is afoot. They are required by law to follow their processes. Even though the public might want to know who won immediately, I think there’s also something to be said about local jurisdictions and states sticking to their processes in spite of the political and perhaps public pressure they might be under to announce a winner.

One of the bigger concerns I’ve had, even before 2016, was negative consequences of misinformation and disinformation and how rapidly it can spread, particularly on social media. I would encourage voters to go straight to the source—their chief election official in their state or their county elections office—as opposed to relying on information they might see on the Internet. Because even though there are obviously actors who are well-intended, they, too, might find themselves in a position of spreading misinformation if they particularly don’t consider how the rules are so vastly different from state to state, as we just saw with the Postal Service.

Hale: One of the things that comes through for me constantly is the resilience of election officials in dealing with any sort of unexpected events. The continuity of operations plans, or COOPS, are not new, particularly to local election officials on the ground. The pandemic is definitely a challenge, but it’s a challenge that’s being met by election officials who are well-prepared and well-versed in dealing with all manner of natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes in the Gulf and 9/11, which occurred on an election day. This is a group of people who plans ahead. They plan carefully and plan well and are, at this point, all about executing the very good plans they’ve already put in place.

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