We Finally (Kind of) Understand COVID – What Does That Mean at the Voting Booth?

By Rob Grimsley*

When the Coronavirus first went viral, most Americans agreed that public spaces needed to be shut down in order to slow the spread and begin to understand what we were dealing with. However, as 2020 was an election year, there was soon speculation as to how to handle voting. Traditionally, voting had been an activity performed on election day, with mass amounts of people gathering in confined spaces for a prolonged period of time. Obviously, this generated legitimate concerns about the spread risk of voting locations and the difficulty of casting votes in general. A result of this concern was mass expansion of the ability to vote by mail, with at least 40 states allowing increased mail-in voting due to the coronavirus. In fact, every state that tracked mail-in voting saw an increase in the 2020 election. States also allowed increased access to early voting to prevent mass gathering on the day of the election. Overall, 69% of voters cast their vote non-traditionally in 2020. For comparison, only 40% of voters cast their vote non-traditionally in 2016.

At the time of the 2020 election, not a single person had been vaccinated against COVID-19. There were fears of its effects in both the short and long term. The first real studies on the virus were not published until only a few months before the election. Even after the publication of scientific studies, there was so much information about the coronavirus that it was difficult to decipher real from fake news. To top it all off, the united public opinion of Americans had wavered by the time the election arrived, with significant division on how seriously the virus should be taken. 

Voting creates issues for every American when it comes to exposure to COVID-19, but the numbers say that inner city individuals and minorities have to wait the longest at the polls. 23% of black voters and 19% of urban voters had to wait at least 31 minutes to vote, whereas only 17% of white voters and 9% of rural voters had to wait that long. In some inner-city neighborhoods, the number of polling places are actually decreasing, forcing the ones that are left to handle even more people. For example, the nine most populated counties in Georgia averaged roughly 25% more people per polling place in 2020 than just 8 years earlier in 2012. Increased exposure such as this may be one reason why blacks and Hispanics are at an increased risk of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus.

Even with the efforts implemented throughout the majority of America, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases still spiked significantly about two weeks after the election. That wasn’t the only issue that stemmed from the election either. There were the extensive claims of voter fraud. Most of these claims allegedly came from the use of mail-in ballots, however nearly every claim was unsubstantiated. Regardless, thousands of people bought into these claims and they were a major reason for the insurrection on January 6, 2021. These two issues are problematic as they serve as a basis for reasons to return voting to normal going forward. 

Flashing forward it is now well over a year since the 2020 election and we know so much more about COVID-19. The current Omicron variant is more contagious, yet early studies show it to be not nearly as dangerous as the past two variants. Also, at the time of the election in 2020, the quarantine period was 14 days if you were even simply exposed to the virus. 

Now however, the CDC states you do not even need to quarantine if you are fully vaccinated and have recently tested positive. If unvaccinated, you only need to quarantine for five days after exposure, after which you may leave your home. Finally, even if you tested positive, the most you must isolate for is five days, as long as your symptoms have been gone for 24 hours. 

Public opinion of the virus has fluctuated over time. In late 2020, 64% of Americans felt that gathering at Thanksgiving was a large or moderate risk due to the virus. Compare that to late 2021, when only one-third of Americans reported the same fears. Overall, the fear of COVID itself has dropped significantly since before the 2020 election. In Mid-November of 2020 about 56% of Americans were concerned about a potential Coronavirus outbreak. In contrast, only about 41% of Americans feel the same way currently. 

So what does this all mean in terms of the 2022 election? As mentioned previously, nearly every state expanded their residents’ mail-in voting capabilities, which resulted in record turnout even during the pandemic. Life has somewhat returned to normal however, and that may mean a return to normalcy at the voting booths as well. At least 19 states have already passed bills limiting voting in some form. These bills include making early/mail-in voting less accessible, imposing stricter voter ID requirements, and making faulty voter purges more likely. Some states are taking it one step further and may impose criminal penalties on election officials for various reasons, mostly related to election officials improperly assisting others in the course of the election.

But what about the “new normal”? Even though states expanded voting access due to the coronavirus, that doesn’t mean access must be restricted now that we have a better idea of what we are dealing with. Roughly 25 states enacted bills in this past legislative session to expand voting access to continue what was started in 2020. Some of these policies include: making mail-in voting easier and more accessible; allowing more time for election officials to count votes; lengthen the time voters have to early-vote; and increased language access to those who may not speak English. A further eight states have even fully codified policies that were only temporarily in place from the coronavirus outbreak. 

What does this all mean for the upcoming election? In short, not much yet. There is still a lot of time until the election and much could change in the 2022 legislative sessions. What we do know is there will be a lot of variance between states and their election laws. Your access to the polls may very well depend on the state and city that you live in. It is no secret that those in the inner cities, where the majority of minorities in America live, have more restricted access to polling places. For these people, staying alert to the changing election laws may be crucial to be able to have their voices heard and avoid waiting 90+ minutes to do so.

* Rob Grimsley, University of Minnesota Law School Class of 2023, JLI Vol. 40 Staff Member