What are the different mechanisms, procedures, and protocols in place by states' board of elections to handle voting during emergencies? e.g. Hurricane, health, and riot.

I am under the assumption that a declaration of martial law by a governor, which suspend certain rights, could also suspend voting rights? However, would this gubernatorial power extend over federal elections?


2 Answers 2


The details are state-specific, but follow a pattern. Martial law refers to "who has authority". In Washington, the powers of the governor are spelled out here. RCW 38.08.030 says

The governor may by proclamation declare the county or city in which troops are serving, or any specific portion thereof, to be under either complete or limited martial law to the extent, in his or her opinion, that the reestablishment or maintenance of law and order may be promoted.

"Complete martial law" is the subordination of all civil authority to the military;

"Limited military law" is a partial subordination of civil authority by the setting up of an additional police power vested in the military force which shall have the right to try all persons apprehended by it in such area by a military tribunal or turn such offender over to civil authorities within five days for further action, during which time the writ of habeas corpus shall be suspended in behalf of such person.


The governor shall cause the organized militia of this state at all times to conform to all federal laws and regulations as are now or may hereafter from time to time become operative and applicable, notwithstanding anything in the laws of this state to the contrary. Except as and when otherwise specifically provided by federal laws, the organized militia of Washington, or any part thereof, shall be subject to call for United States service at such times, in such manner, and in such numbers as may from time to time be prescribed by the United States.

No provision grants dictatorial power to anyone. The powers of the governor are specified here, and starting here, the law spells out the powers of the governor w.r.t. a "state of emergency", especially here for a list. It does not include postponing or otherwise changing the law regarding elections. (I should point out that Washington has been doing vote-by-mail exclusively, for 15 years, so the virus is a non-issue regarding voting).

It would require a detailed state-by-state study of laws to determine if any state has enacted a provision to the effect that the governor can re-write electoral laws in case of an emergency, but I think it is highly unlikely that any state would grant such power to a governor. Therefore, to change the voting system so that voters in e.g. Ohio must vote by mail or at least drop-box (as in Washington), the legislature would have to change the law (which they did, but just for the primary). Absentee voting is a possible existing work-around: but the voter has to request an absentee ballot.


Voting rights can't be suspended by the Governor or a Board of Elections (except for good individualized cause). Voting procedures can be modified under specific state election law authority at the state level, for example, to keep polls open longer or change the polling stations that are open.

The Federal government is not authorized to administer election in the United States outside of areas outside of any U.S. state (e.g. the District of Columbia or the U.S. Virgin Islands), and in those places, this authority is normally delegated to local authorities as the elections themselves arise solely until District or territorial law (with the exception of Presidential elections in the District of Columbia where the U.S. Constitution provides for its participation in the election of three Presidential electors).

So, the U.S. President cannot suspend or modify any election absent an actual war in the place where the election is being conducted, and even then subject to further limitations (in a U.S. state, federal involvement must be at the invitation of the Governor of that state). Sometimes a state might make a Presidential disaster declaration one trigger of the authority to take extraordinary actions, however.

It would be extraordinarily rare for something that justified a modification of election laws to give rise to martial law (i.e. military rule).

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