Working Paper, May 2021



Despite Congress’ constitutional power to regulate federal elections, it has repeatedly abstained from doing so. The lack of a policy regarding federal elections meant that states were primarily responsible for managing the effects of the pandemic on the 2020 general election. It was up to individual states to enact statutes, issue rules or emergency order

s to deal with the public health risks associated with voting during the pandemic. The variations in their responses to the election emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could have had implications on accessibility, turnout, and the perceived legitimacy of the election. To understand this relationship, we to cataloged the measures states took in 2020 in preparation for the general election and draw conclusions as to their effects on vote access.  We also determined how or whether a federal governmentpolicy on disrupted elections could have aided states in responding to the elections emergency caused by the pandemic.

We initially thought to use turnout as a dependent variable to measure the effects of emergency measures to promote vote access. Given measurement challenges and a lack of available turnout data from 2020, we opted to create a scorecard to estimate the totality of state measures to promote accessibility during the 2020 general election. We allocated points based on the quality and quantity of measures enacted to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on access to voting.1 We included four categories deemed essential to voting accessibility: mail-in voting, deadline extensions, changes to polling places, and ballot drop-off boxes. This allowed us to make judgments as to the relative quality of state responses to the pandemic election emergency. We also analyzed states’ elections emergency statutes prior to the 2020 election to understand whether preparedness impacted accessibility.  Lastly, we analyzed whether state emergency measures had an effect on voter perceptions of the election’s legitimacy.

Generally speaking, partisan considerations predominated over state responses to the pandemic election emergency, reflecting the highly polarized political atmosphere of the 2020 election over attitudes regarding COVID-19 and mailin balloting. We found that partisanship had a strong effect on the degree to which a state took action to increase access to voting.  Democratic states tended to take stronger emergency actions to increase accessibility, while Republican states were less likely to enact emergency modifications. This difference was especially true for state actions related to mail-in balloting. We also concluded the existence of preexisting state laws concerning elections emergencies had little effect on their responses during the 2020 general election. Lastly, we found that partisanship was more highly correlated with voter perceptions of the election’s legitimacy than was the scale of election modifications states made.


The full working paper can be found here.

State Election Emergencies Modifications during the 2020 General Election