Vote-By-Mail: Protecting the Ballot during COVID-19

June 11, 2020 – The Eagleton Institute of Politics and The Fund for New Jersey hosted a webinar that explored how the United States can effectively transition the processes and practices of politics to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19–most especially the continuity of elections.

Program panelists included:

  • Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Washington State
  • Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, MIT
  • Joanne Rajoppi, Clerk, Union County, New Jersey
  • Connor Maxwell, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for American Progress

Moderated by Ronald K. Chen, University Professor, Rutgers School of Law

During the webinar panelists addressed the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to current election processes and made recommendations for how states can ensure voter participation and election security during the national health crisis. The discussion included a variety of topics including, vote-by-mail, voter suppression, election security, and voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today would have been the day that the New Jersey primary would have taken place but for the intervention of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Professor Chen. “This time may also been known in the future as a very difficult and dark time in our nation’s history, but perhaps for that very reason it is especially appropriate that we examine the steps necessary to maintain and reinvigorate our democratic processes.”


Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman opened the discussion about vote-by-mail ballots by explaining that “not every state can flip a switch today and turn into vote-by-mail state overnight.”

Secretary Wyman outlined her state’s history with vote-by-mail elections, noting that it took the state more than five years to transition its election processes to entirely vote-by-mail. “It takes time to build controls and security measures to do vote-by-mail well… Security measures are put in place to safeguard the robust access we give voters. We have to acknowledge the two extremes of voter suppression and voter fraud, and we have to address them so that we can inspire confidence in our voters,” said Secretary Wyman.

Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that since efforts to expand accessibility to vote-by-mail is both a logistical and political challenge, especially only months away from a presidential election, states should “do two things to make elections safe and accessible: extend mail in balloting to as many as possible who want it and keep as many in person polling places open as possible.”

He noted that access to vote-by-mail slightly increases voter turnout during general election years but have a drastic impact on local elections. “You could get 20-30% voter turnout in a local race that may have only had 1-2%.”

Stewart underscored a great challenge states will face this November – a lack of poll workers and other volunteers due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19. He urged all those who are able to call their local election official’s office and see how they can help this election season.

Connor Maxwell, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, spoke about how communities of color face unique challenges when exercising their right to vote. “Despite decades of progress in expanding access to American democracy, there are still stark racial disparities in voter participation,” said Maxwell. He outlined three categories of factors that contribute to these persistent disparities, including structural barriers, insufficient engagement, and voter suppression.

Maxwell echoed statements by Wyman and Steward regarding the need to ensure that elections are administered securely but he cautioned that “we need to make sure there are some safeguards in place to make sure that people are not having their ballots tossed out unnecessarily.”

“In the world’s leading democracy, voting should not be a difficult process,” said Maxwell.

This year, by executive order of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, all 6.1 million voters in the Garden State are receiving a mail in ballot for the upcoming primary election. Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi explained the challenges that her office and the other county offices are facing, including a strain on the supply chain, a lack of staff members, and coordinating with the U.S. Postal Service amid the pandemic.

‘We want everyone’s ballot to be opened and counted, said Rajoppi. “We are hoping to get a 60-70% return rate.”


During Q&A many members of the audience asked about the extent of voter fraud with vote-by-mail ballots. Stewart responded, saying, “If you look nationwide, you are talking about one vote in 2 million could be considered to be fraudulent.”

Voter Suppression

Maxwell noted that while many often think of voter suppression as intimidation at the polls, a core element of voter suppression is misinformation. He proposed five recommendations issued by the Center for American Progress:

  1. Preserve in person options, including at least two weeks of early voting due to the pandemic
  2. Expand voter registration to an online option and an option to register on Election Day.
  3. Establishing ballot tracing and nondiscriminatory ballot signature verification.
  4. Eliminate burdensome absentee requirements.
  5. Launch robust voter education initiatives.

Click here to watch the full webinar.