Across the country, election officials have scrambled to respond in the wake of the growing coronavirus pandemic. With growing concerns about public health and safety, many are advocating for mass voting by mail, either through increasing access to absentee ballots—which are typically made available to voters upon individual request—or expanding existing systems to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter.

Recently, longtime vote-by-mail proponent Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced federal legislation with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) to provide opportunities for voters throughout the country to vote by mail ahead of the November general election. But shifting state-run elections to a vote-by-mail system can pose a real challenge depending on the existing election laws and election officials’ willingness to cooperate. In addition, conversations about a large-scale shift from in-person voting to voting by mail must consider pending proposals and election reform challenges happening at the state level.

Georgia is a prime example. It’s one of several states to reschedule its presidential primary in response to the coronavirus outbreak, throwing a wrench into ongoing in-state fights over election reform and voter suppression. If left unresolved, those issues could pose challenges to a newly expanded system of voting by absentee ballot. 

Senate Bill 463, an election reform bill that was fast-tracked through the Georgia State Senate, is now delayed due to coronavirus and on hold in the state House of Representatives. As proposed, SB 463 would permit voters to submit a copy of their photo ID along with their ballot to avoid having to cure a signature match issue after rejection occurs. Voting rights advocates objected to both rushing to pass SB 463 ahead of the primary and the bill’s substance, which they said would result in voter suppression due to the ID and signature match requirements. There was also concern about counties being burdened with an unfunded mandate to carry out proposed duties from the state to ensure compliance with federal voting rights laws. The bill was a purported “fix” for election issues after the passage of House Bill 316, a suite of election reforms signed into law last year that made way for the purchase of new voting machines that are open to manipulation, among other problems.

Now, with the legislative session indefinitely suspended due to the coronavirus, Georgia voting rights advocates have shifted their attention from organizing around SB 463 to pushing for absentee ballots. In Georgia, voters are able to vote by mail by requesting an absentee ballot without stating a reason. Although many Georgians used absentee ballots in the 2018 midterm elections, shifting to a major push for voting by absentee ballot requires outreach and voter education.

Georgia’s secretary of state has proposed a strategy to get absentee ballots in the hands of voters over the age of 60, given the population’s increased risk due to the coronavirus. In a Twitter thread earlier this week, Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo highlighted some of the issues with the proposal. Directly challenging “the myth that the coronavirus only impacts older adults,” Groh-Wargo asserted that people of all ages were contracting and dying from the disease. She further noted that sending absentee ballot applications solely to older voters would disproportionately disadvantage voters of color since older voters in Georgia are overwhelmingly white. The state’s plan also would not address the problem of poll worker shortages.

Groh-Wargo went on to demand the governor expand access to vote-by-mail for all voters. “With the governor’s new emergency powers and the ability to move resources as needed, [Georgia] must look at massively broadening vote by mail access to ALL voters in Georgia, following these ‘gold standard’ guidelines, by [Marc Elias].”

The four “gold standard” guidelines proposed by Elias, an election law attorney, are that postage must be free or prepaid by the government, ballots postmarked on or before Election Day must count, signature matching laws need to be reformed to protect voters, and community organizations must be permitted to collect and return sealed ballots. The guidance provided by Elias is important in ensuring that access to voting is protected for all eligible voters while ensuring the security of elections.  

According to Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action Fund, reform of signature match laws is particularly urgent to help Georgians regain trust in the election process.

“Thousands of vote-by-mail ballots have been thrown out over the past few election cycles because an election worker decided that the signature of the voter on their vote-by-mail ballot didn’t match the signature on their voter registration form,” she said. “Fun fact, signatures can change according to the mood, so imagine how it could change over the course of several years or decades?”

Rather than turning county election workers into de facto handwriting experts, she argued, Georgia must increase access to mail-in ballots. “As we move through another important election year, we cannot let the COVID-19 pandemic stop us from participating in our democracy. The state and all 159 of Georgia’s counties must start preparations to ensure that every Georgia voter is mailed a vote-by-mail ballot. The failed signature no-match policy should be dropped to encourage trust and participation in the vote-by-mail system and plans to enact some version of curbside voting should be put in place now,” said Ufot.

Even as SB 463 sits in limbo, voting rights advocates have raised concerns about a provision in the bill related to curing signature match issues, which can result in rejection of an absentee ballot when the signature on the ballot doesn’t match the signature available in public records. Ufot, along with other voting rights advocates, have argued that this creates a tiered system where those who have access to photocopying are able to ensure their ballot will count, further exacerbating existing concerns with signature match issues.  

“I am very concerned [about SB] 463’s ability to make it easier for local officials to reject absentee ballots,” said Ufot. “Local election officials are not handwriting experts, and nor should they be. This move always penalizes poor people. If you don’t have a copier or printer at your home, you are more likely to be disenfranchised. They are telling you that if you don’t have a copy of your driver’s license they are less likely to count your ballot. Their job is not to construct additional hurdles for folks to clear to exercise the franchise.”

Verifying, validating, and curing absentee ballots is a challenge in any given election cycle. Having more voters utilizing absentee ballots or vote-by-mail requires extra vigilance on behalf of advocates. Without reforming signature matching laws to protect voters, expanding the availability of voting by mail may just open up additional avenues for suppression.

UPDATE: After this article was published, it was reported that the Georgia secretary of state announced that all voters would be mailed an absentee ballot application, seemingly in response to demands from voting rights groups.  While this is a step in the right direction, voters will still be required to affix postage stamps instead of being provided an envelope with return postage paid, which contravenes one of election law attorney Marc Elias’s guidelines for ensuring vote by mail does not lead to additional barriers for voters. Prism will be following this story closely. 

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.