Introduction Voters facing illness or disability are disproportionately under-represented in terms of voter turnout. Earlier research has indicated that enfranchisement of these populations may reinforce the implementation of policies improving health outcomes and equity. Due to the confluence of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the 2020 election, we aimed to assess emergency absentee voting processes, which allow voters hospitalized after regular absentee deadlines to still obtain an absentee ballot, and election changes due to COVID-19 in all 50 states.
Methods We performed a cross-sectional study collecting 34 variables pertaining to emergency voting processes and COVID-19-related election changes, including deadlines, methods of submission for applications and ballots, and specialized services for patients. Data were obtained from, in order of priority, state boards of elections websites, poll worker manuals, application forms, and state legislation. We verified all data through direct correspondence with state boards of elections.
Results Emergency absentee voting processes are in place in 39 states, with the remaining states having universal vote-by-mail (n = 5) or extended regular absentee voting deadlines (n = 6). The emergency absentee period most commonly began within 24 hours following the normal absentee application deadline, which was often seven days before an election (n = 11). Unique aspects of emergency voting processes included patients designating an “authorized agent” to deliver their applications and ballots (n = 38), electronic ballot delivery (n = 5), and in-person teams that deliver ballots directly to patients (n = 18). Documented barriers in these processes nationwide include unavailable online information (n = 11), restrictions mandating agents to be family members (n = 7), physician affidavits or signatures (n = 9), and notary or witness signature requirements (n = 15). For the November 2020 presidential election, 12 states expanded absentee eligibility to allow COVID-19 as a reason to request an absentee ballot, and 18 states mailed absentee ballot applications or absentee ballots to all registered voters.
Conclusion While 39 states operate emergency absentee voting processes for hospitalized voters, there are considerable areas for improvement and heterogeneity in guidelines for these protocols. For future election cycles, information on emergency voting and broader election reforms due to COVID-19 may be useful for emergency providers and patients alike to improve the democratic participation of voters experiencing illness.