COLUMBIA, Mo. – With coronavirus cases spreading rapidly across her state, Samantha Allen laments that Missouri does not allow voters to cast their ballots in person before Election Day.
More than 21 million voters across the U.S. have taken advantage of early in-person voting amid record-breaking early turnout, according to Associated Press elections research. But that option isn’t available in Connecticut, Mississippi, Missouri or New Hampshire, which has stirred worries about long lines and big crowds on Election Day with the threat of COVID-19 looming large, particularly in Missouri.
Allen, a 55-year-old Republican, said spreading out voting over a long period would keep the lines shorter, which she said is especially important during the pandemic.
“A lot of people could do it easier,” she said. “It would thin out the lines (and) keep the spread of the COVID down.”
Connecticut this year gave every voter the option to cast an absentee ballot by mail or drop it off before Election Day. Interest has been so great that it has overwhelmed municipal clerks, who had processed about 674,000 absentee ballot requests by mid-October, compared to fewer than 130,000 that were cast in Connecticut during the entire 2016 presidential race. Most say they have been able to keep up because they hired more staff.
Carol Rizzolo, an independent 64-year-old Connecticut voter and co-founder of an initiative called SafeVoteCT, said local elections officials are struggling to retrofit the state’s absentee ballot system, which wasn’t designed for such a deluge of requests. She said the state should have given voters the chance to cast a ballot early in person.
“There’s no question, if we had early voting, if we could have started the damn process two weeks ago, then we wouldn’t have swamped people. It wouldn’t even be a question,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be pandemic-related. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Adopting early in-person voting permanently in Connecticut would require a change to the state constitution. But states can also take temporary actions during emergencies.
That's what happened in Kentucky, where the Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state struck an agreement to make it safer to vote during the pandemic. For the general election, the state is offering absentee voting to anyone who feels at risk from COVID-19, as well as early in-person voting to try to hold down crowds on Election Day. So far, at least 530,000 Kentucky voters have cast their ballots in person.
Under a temporary change to state law in New Hampshire, anyone concerned about the virus can vote by absentee ballot, either by mail or by dropping it off.
Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, said small towns probably don’t have the money to support early in-person voting, which he said is rarely discussed in the state's political circles.
“I think a lot of people recognize that Election Day is Election Day," he said.
Early in-person voting has been a popular option this fall in places that allow it, but some states have been reluctant to allow or expand it for reasons ranging from Republican skepticism and a lack of funding to states’ political cultures and whether a state is primarily urban or rural, said Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico.
In Mississippi, bills to allow early voting passed the state House with bipartisan support in 2016 and 2017 but were killed by a state Senate committee led by Republicans, who have controlled both legislative chambers for nearly a decade.
Some Democratic lawmakers in Mississippi sought to expand absentee voting this year because of the virus, but those efforts went nowhere. Under current law, absentee voting is limited to people who are age 65 or older, who have a disability or who show they can't make it to their polling places on Election Day.
Missouri expanded absentee options for voters at higher risk of being severely sickened by the virus, and all Missouri voters can vote by mail if they get their ballots notarized. But rules around mail-in ballots and concerns about Postal Service slowdowns have left many voters wishing the state had gone further.
Shirley Kelly, a 70-year-old retiree from Columbia, said she’d like to have the option to vote early in person. She believes that would improve turnout among her fellow Black voters, especially those with disabilities or older people who don’t drive.
“A lot of us don’t have transportation,” said Kelly, a Democrat.
Advocates tried to put a six-week early voting proposal on the state ballot in 2014, but they couldn't get enough petition signatures. Republican lawmakers pitched an alternative that would have allowed advance voting for six business days, but voters rejected it.
There's now some bipartisan support to make it easier to cast ballots early in Missouri, at least in future elections.
Republican state Rep. Peggy McGaugh, who served as a local elections official before joining the Legislature, is pushing for no-excuse absentee voting. She hopes the temporary mail-in voting law in effect this year because of the coronavirus will help her bill gain traction.
“I hope in the end that the legislators find that it was a success,” she said.
Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut, Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire, and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.