The 12 Worst-Prepared States for Voter Safety in 2020 Elections Amid Covid-19 Pandemic

States in the South and the Northeast have scored the worst in a report looking at which parts of the U.S. have the flexibility to enable voters to safely participate in the upcoming presidential election.

Researchers at the RAND Corporation non-profit think tank assessed the state of voting processes that will enable voters to minimize their contact with others and avoid spreading the coronavirus across U.S. states. These included the availability of remote voting, early voting, and automatic voter registration.

Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee ranked lowest in flexibility to switch from in-person voting on election day to alternate methods. Approximately 25 million voters live in these states, according to the report. Very few of these states were in the Western half of the country, the team noted.

California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, meanwhile, ranked the highest. The team said these locations have the most flexible voting policies "and are thus perhaps the best situated to deal with the challenges of conducting elections during a pandemic." Around 47 million registered voters live in these states.

The most and least flexible states were found to be diverse both in terms of size and location.

All but 16 states were found to have mail-in or absentee voting options, which don't require an excuse, available to voters. Those needing voters to provide an excuse "might create social distancing and sanitation challenges," the researchers said.

A total of 44 states had early voting options, with six having limited options for those who can provide specific reasons.

In a separate report, the team outlined the options available to state policymakers and officials at each stage of the election process, from registration through to ballot counting, as well as the risks to safety, integrity, access and logistics of each option.

Jennifer Kavanagh, co-leader of the research team and a senior political scientist at RAND, told Newsweek: "The challenge of conducting a safe and secure election in November is a significant one. States need to start preparing now to address the safety concerns and logistical considerations involved.

"For states looking to modify voting procedures by expanding access to early and remote voting options, time is of the essence as these changes can have long lead times depending on the state and the political context."

However, Kavanagh said that although time is running out for certain types of policy changes in some states, there is still time to implement safeguards allowing for social distancing at the polls, ensuring that poll workers have necessary personal protective equipment, and getting the technology needed to process a greater than usual number of mail-in ballots.

"Executive orders that extend access to mail-in ballots and offer other accommodations have provided a stopgap for near-term primary elections, but states still face the challenge of navigating the general election, which will have higher turnout and higher stakes," they wrote.

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A stock image shows a ballot paper. Researchers have investigated ways to make voting safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report comes after President Donald Trump called for the election to be delayed, claiming that mail-in-voting would lead to voter fraud. The same day, a Newsy/Ipsos poll, conducted between July 24 and July 29, found 79 percent of Americans said they were concerned about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the 2020 elections.

The RAND team found vote-by-mail poses a slightly elevated risk of fraud. But Kavanagh said: "The important point to emphasize is that the rate of fraud is minuscule for both vote-by-mail and in-person voting. Fraud is not non-existent, but it is extremely rare.

Asked to respond to those who are worried changing voting systems to accommodate the pandemic will affect integrity, and may, in turn, lead people not to vote, Kavanagh said: "There is no evidence that any of the modifications states might make to conduct safe and secure elections during a pandemic will dramatically increase the rates or opportunities for fraud as compared to previous elections.

"Furthermore, existing protections, such as the signature matching used to validate ballots, seem effective at identifying and preventing fraud. As a result, voters should not let this concern affect their decision about voting."