The pandemic has already altered how tens of millions of Americans can cast their ballots this year

The pandemic has already altered how tens of millions of Americans can cast their ballots this year

Washington Post: The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly transforming this year’s elections, changing the way tens of millions of people cast ballots and putting thousands of election officials at the center of a pitched political fight as they rush to adapt with limited time and funding.

In a watershed moment for American voting, nearly 30 states have changed rules or practices for this year’s primaries or the general election in response to the public health threat posed by covid-19, according to a tally by The Washington Post. The new policies affect roughly 86.6 million registered voters — including more than 40 million people who now have the temporary right to cast an absentee ballot because of the virus.

This striking shift in the voting landscape encompasses nearly every part of the country, red and blue states alike. But with November less than six months away, the largely bipartisan wave of change has been hit by political turbulence as President Trump raises unfounded doubts about the security of voting by mail and threatens to punish states where Democratic leaders are facilitating it.

Battles over voting in the age of the coronavirus are defining the 2020 presidential cycle, with intense partisan fights over the rules erupting in states such as Wisconsin and Texas. The outcome will shape how easy it will be for people to cast their ballots in November — and in some cases, whether certain mail-in votes will be counted.

As more than two dozen legal battles wend their way through the courts, local and state officials are racing to figure out how to administer the election amid the health crisis, propelled by an unyielding calendar.

“There’s so much debate in Washington, particularly as a result of comments from the president, around the questions: ‘Are people going to be voting by mail?’ ‘Should they be allowed to vote by mail?’ And the fact of the matter is, they’re doing it,” said Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“The election officials have to essentially create a new infrastructure for handling that,” he added. “They prepared for one election and got another.”

This year, more than 168 million of the nation’s nearly 198 million registered voters are eligible to vote absentee in either midyear contests or the general election.

In the fall, the country could see a huge surge in mail voting compared with 2016, when more than 33 million ballots were cast absentee or sent in by mail for the general election, about 24 percent of the vote, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The process has already been messy and costly, posing challenges for local election clerks, the U.S. Postal Service and voters trying to navigate the shifting rules.

The next big test will come June 2, when eight states and the District of Columbia are holding primaries. At the same time, many jurisdictions are face looming deadlines to order ballot materials and specialty equipment for the general election. ,,,

Eleven states that require an excuse to vote absentee have announced that voters may cast ballots by mail for the primaries this year if they are concerned in-person voting will make them sick. These decisions temporarily make voting by mail accessible to more than 40 millionpeople.

Another 12 states and the District of Columbia are proactively sending absentee ballot applications or request forms to voters specifically because of the coronavirus. Roughly 34.7 million people will receive the forms, according to state figures on registered and active voters.

In the most controversial move, four states — Maryland, Montana, Nevada and New Jersey — are proactively sending absentee ballots for the primaries to approximately 11.3 million voters in the coming months. They join five states that already mail ballots to voters. Read more.

Why We Need Postal Democracy

Why We Need Postal Democracy

David Cole, New York Review of Books: Nothing symbolizes democracy like long lines at the polls on election day. They represent a collective act of faith, as chances are virtually nil that any one of the votes we cast over our lifetime will determine the outcome of an election. They remind us that many of our fellow citizens have had to fight to stand in such lines. And because long lines are also often a sign that election officials have failed to provide sufficient voting opportunities, they illustrate the tenacity of citizens who insist on casting their ballots even when the government seems more interested in obstructing than in facilitating the franchise.

Not since the civil rights era, when African-Americans in the South braved death threats to exercise their right to vote, has a voting line embodied this commitment more profoundly than on April 7 in Milwaukee. People lined up around the block, trying to maintain six-foot social-distancing intervals, to vote in what was a relatively unimportant election. At issue were only the all-but-concluded Democratic presidential primary, a single state supreme court seat, and a small number of lower state and local offices. At a time when their governor and mayor—both Democrats—had instructed them to shelter in place, these Milwaukee citizens had come out to stand in public for hours in order to exercise their constitutional right. The city, which ordinarily operates 180 polling places, opened only five, as poll workers balked at showing up. At least forty voters and poll workers may have contracted the coronavirus as a result.

It was government officials who compelled them to risk their health, and possibly their lives, to vote: specifically, the Wisconsin state legislature, the justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the justices of the United States Supreme Court—or more accurately, the Republican members of those institutions. The Republican-gerrymandered state legislature blocked Governor Tony Evers’s efforts to delay the election until June or to conduct an all-mail election. When the governor invoked his emergency powers to unilaterally suspend in-person voting until June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, on a party-line 4–2 vote, nullified his order, proclaiming that he lacked the authority to take such action. For their part, all of the court’s justices voted absentee; they weren’t risking a trip to the polls.

The night before the election, the US Supreme Court stepped in to stay a federal district court ruling that had merely extended by six days the deadline for the state to receive absentee ballots, including those postmarked after election day. The district court imposed this modest extension when it became clear that thousands of voters would not receive their absentee ballots until after the election, because an unprecedented surge in requests for such ballots overwhelmed the Wisconsin electoral system. The US Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority declared that the district court’s order violated the principle that courts “ordinarily” should not alter the rules for elections shortly before election day. The majority also noted, repeatedly, that the plaintiffs—who included Wisconsin voters, voting rights organizations, and the Democratic National Committee—had not specifically requested this particular relief.

But as Linda Greenhouse commented in The New York Times, there was nothing “ordinary” about this election, which came in what President Trump had predicted would be the worst week of the pandemic. And as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, the plaintiffs had in fact requested that relief at the preliminary injunction hearing—a correction the majority did not even acknowledge, much less dispute. As a result, thousands of Wisconsin residents had to put their health at risk to vote—a risk the US Supreme Court justices, who voted on the case remotely, were unwilling to take themselves. (If you think there’s a pattern here, there is.)

Why was there so much drama over such a minor election? And what does it portend for the momentous election coming in November? The answer is disturbing: in the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans may have discovered the ultimate voter suppression tactic. For years they have sought to erect obstacles to voting, imposing strict voter identification requirements, limiting registration opportunities, purging voter rolls, and opposing early voting—all ostensibly in the name of fighting in-person “voter fraud,” even though there is virtually no evidence that anyone unlawfully impersonates a voter at the polls. Many Republicans believe that low voter turnout favors them, because older and wealthier citizens, disproportionately Republican, vote more regularly than younger and poorer citizens, who tend to favor Democrats. But the suppression tactics the party has previously pursued pale in comparison to fear of contracting a deadly disease, which is certain to deter many people from going to the polls. And that’s apparently how some Republicans like it.

The obvious answer to the problem of how to preserve democracy in a pandemic is to expand voting by mail. Failing to make absentee voting in these circumstances available to all is an impermissible burden on the constitutional right to vote—just as providing only a single polling place for a large district would be. The Supreme Court has declared the right to vote “of the most fundamental significance under our constitutional structure.”1 States must provide adequate opportunities to vote, and when they do not, even if the immediate cause is beyond their control, they violate the Constitution. For example, when a hurricane hit Florida during the last week of voter registration in 2016, the state was constitutionally required to extend the registration deadline.2 The usual deadline was permissible under ordinary circumstances but became unduly onerous in the emergency conditions created by the hurricane. The same rationale holds with respect to rules that restrict voting by mail. They might be reasonable in ordinary times, but not when the alternative is to risk contagion in order to exercise one’s right.

At the moment, five states—Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and Hawaii—conduct their elections almost entirely by mail. Another twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia permit “no-excuse” absentee voting, while the remaining seventeen states and Puerto Rico permit absentee voting only for specific causes, such as being out of state on election day. During the pandemic, absentee voting should be available to all registered voters, without requiring an “excuse.” The coronavirus is, after all, a universal excuse. States should send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, with prepaid return envelopes, to ensure the maximum opportunity to vote. On April 24, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York would do just that.

Yet President Trump has opposed such public health–promoting suggestions. He claims that if we were to adopt voting by mail, “you’d never have another Republican elected in this country again.” The Republican Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives agreed, predicting that voting by mail would be “extremely devastating to Republicans.” That would be the case only if, when more voters’ preferences are counted, there are more votes for Democrats than for Republicans. But that’s precisely how democracy is supposed to work: it’s called “majority rule.” If the only way a party can prevail is by suppressing votes, it shouldn’t win.

In fact, there’s little evidence to back Trump’s assertion that voting by mail favors Democrats. Studies of voting by mail in practice reveal no systemic advantage for either party.3 In the disputed Wisconsin election, The New York Times found that mailed ballots gave a significant advantage to the unexpectedly victorious Democratic candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Jill Karofsky. But some experts believe that may have been because the Democratic Party did a better job in this election of urging its voters to cast ballots by mail.4 Voting by mail may be especially attractive to rural and older voters who have difficulty getting to polling stations—both demographics that tend to skew Republican.5 Trump himself votes by mail, and Republicans have long aggressively urged their voters to do so where it is allowed. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Republican National Committee is calling it “easy, convenient, and secure.”6

It’s not clear at this point how much Trump’s opposition to voting by mail will affect the November election. The most likely swing states—Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona—all permit no-excuse absentee voting already. And many “red” states are already taking steps to make voting by mail easier. Alabama, Indiana, and West Virginia have announced that all voters will be permitted to vote by mail in their upcoming primary elections. West Virginia and Georgia are mailing absentee ballot applications to registered voters. In New Hampshire, which ordinarily limits absentee ballots to those with specific excuses, the Republican governor issued an order permitting anyone to vote by mail not just in the primary but also in November, becoming the first “no-excuse” state to relax its excuse requirements for the general election.  Read more.

Few States Are Prepared To Switch To Voting By Mail. That Could Make For A Messy Election

Few States Are Prepared To Switch To Voting By Mail. That Could Make For A Messy Election

FiveThirtyEight: As with most aspects of our daily lives, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the administration of elections. Several states have already postponed primaries that were scheduled for this spring, and the few in-person elections that have taken place were marred by chaos. But with an election date of November 3 more or less set in stone, how can the general election be conducted safely if the pandemic is still raging in the fall?

Many officials and voters alike think the solution is to conduct the election predominantly by mail — but that’s easier said than done. Converting to a vote-by-mail system is arduous and expensive, and most states simply aren’t set up to smoothly conduct a mail election with their present resources and laws.

Currently, state laws on the use of mail voting are a patchwork quilt. Only five states regularly conduct mail elections by default: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Three more, though, do allow counties to opt into mail voting, and nine more allow certain elections to be conducted by mail — although these are typically low-turnout, local elections, a far cry from the 2020 presidential race.

Another 29 states (plus Washington, D.C.) give voters the option to vote by mail — also known as no-excuse absentee voting — in federal elections, but the burden is on the voter to request her ballot. The remaining 16 states still require voters to provide a valid excuse if they want to vote by mail, although this year, some states may accept concerns around the coronavirus as an excuse. (New Hampshire has already moved to do that for the general election.) Read more.

What’s Super Popular? Voting by Mail

What’s Super Popular? Voting by Mail

Congressional Democrats must recognize that Americans want this change, and bargain hard for the $4 billion that will assure safe and fair elections

John Nichols, Nation Magazine: President Trump and his hyper-partisan Republican allies have been attacking proposals to vote by mail in November. The reason has nothing to do with honest concerns about this system for voting, which has gotten high marks in the handful of states where it has already been implemented—and which offers an option for a safe, high-turnout national election even as the coronavirus pandemic lingers, or diminishes and returns in the fall. Trump, who lost the 2016 election by 2.9 million votes and prevailed only because of the antidemocratic Electoral College, fears a high-turnout election might not favor him.

But the American people understand that election procedures aren’t supposed to be enacted to help or hinder particular politicians.

So it is that, for all of Trump’s ranting about the supposed perils of voting by mail, the American people love the idea. Democrats need to recognize this reality. Instead of bending to the president, they can demand in coming stimulus negotiations that Trump and the Republicans bend—knowing that the numbers are on their side.

The latest Harvard-Harris survey, which was conducted April 14–16, asked 2,394 voters, “Currently three states (Oregon, Washington, and Colorado) conduct their elections completely by mail. Would you support a decision to conduct the 2020 Presidential election entirely by mail in all 50 states?”

Seventy-two percent of those who answered said “yes.”

Just 28 percent said “no.”

Read more.

Voting by Mail Could Be What States Need. But Can They Pull It Off?

Voting by Mail Could Be What States Need. But Can They Pull It Off?

Politics aside, many states will face daunting financial, logistical and personnel challenges to making mail balloting the norm.

New York Times: When Colorado’s 3.5 million voters help select a president this fall, their choice will be made almost entirely by mail, via ballots in postage-paid envelopes dropped off in mailboxes or, more commonly, in bins scattered statewide.

Not so in Alabama. As the law now stands, all voters must cast their ballots on Election Day, at their designated polling places, unless they vote absentee. And getting an absentee ballot is so hard that fewer than 55,000 of 1.7 million voters cast one in the last election.

Election experts, voting rights advocates and a chorus of Democrats are urging states to switch as much as is possible to voting by mail for the November election. Their aim is to ensure that the vote is not plagued by the same nightmare scenario that occurred this week in Wisconsin of voters in masks and gloves going to polls — or staying home — amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, endorsed the idea on Thursday, saying the state would hold its election by mail in November if health risks were still an issue. The Republican secretary of state in Iowa, Paul Pate, raised the same prospect this week. Elsewhere, Republican opposition, like court filings and President Trump’s baseless charge that voting by mail is riddled with fraud, leaves the future of that effort in doubt.

But even if those hurdles were cleared, many, if not most, states would face daunting financial, logistical and personnel challenges to making mail balloting the norm — and a deadline that would turn it into a breathless sprint.

“Switching to voting by mail, even in states with no history of it, can absolutely be done, and quite likely it may need to be done,” said Judd Choate, the state elections director in Colorado, which made the change six years ago. “It’s just a matter of how bumpy it is.” Read more.

CISA COVID working group releases FAQs on expanding absentee/VBM

CISA COVID working group releases FAQs on expanding absentee/VBM

electionline.org: According to the U.S. Census, in 2018, just 6.2 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the Northeast part of the country did so by mail/via absentee. In the South, it was 9.7 percent. Overall, just 23.1 percent of the 2018 ballots were cast by mail/absentee.

Now with the nation in the grips of a global pandemic and the November 3 general election less than seven months away, many states are figuring out how to expand the ability to vote absentee/by mail.

For states like Arizona, where the majority of residents are on the state’s Permanent Early Voting List, which means they get a ballot in the mail, the lift to go to an all/mostly mail election for November, if they choose to, would be relatively “simple”. For places like the District of Columbia where only about 8 percent of the 2016 general election ballots were cast by absentee, the move to greatly expand voting by mail will be a big lift, but not impossible.

This week the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) and Sector Coordinating Council’s (SCC) Joint COVID Working Group have put out six FAQ/ consideration documents on how to increase absentee or vote by mail in time for November. The purpose of the COVID working group is to support state and local officials and their private sector partners run elections during this pandemic by looking at everything from expanded mail voting to in-person voting in a social distancing environment.

“These are unprecedented times for everyone, especially election officials.  These documents provide state and local election offices with answers to some of the questions they might have as well as some they might not have thought of yet but need to be aware of,” said Lori Augino, director of elections for the State of Washington and president of the National Association of State Election Directors. “I’m proud of how our community is working together to help Americans cast their ballots this year.”

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, as an executive committee member agreed to chair the working group. The group started with calls focusing on general responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, but much of the requests for information centered on how to expand absentee/ voting by mail along a realistic spectrum in each state.

In order to not get bogged down in issues pertaining to each jurisdiction the group considered how to create a slightly different governing approach that could address the risks and concerns that the election community as a whole will need to consider. The working group further divided into smaller groups — or what they liked to call “swim lanes” — that focused on a specific area.

“With election officials around the country reexamining their 2020 election plans to account for the impact of COVID-19, I am confident this series of documents can help with the tough decisions they face,” said EAC Chairman Ben Hovland. “This group effort represents input from all aspects of the elections community including state and local election officials, federal partners, and industry professionals. The ability to pull people together and create these documents so quickly would not have been possible without the critical infrastructure governance being in place for elections.”

The goal was to expedite the collection of existing best practices and assist in the efficient development of tools and resources. Each subgroup was assigned a lead and worked through which elections officials and organizations would be contacted about each topic so they didn’t overwhelm the same people, people who are also be contacted by individual elections officials and the media.  Read more.

Coronavirus crisis forces states to prioritize mail-in ballots

Coronavirus crisis forces states to prioritize mail-in ballots

Axios: Mail-in ballots are becoming states’ saving grace for their 2020 primary contests as the coronavirus crisis deepens in the U.S.

Why it matters: Amid CDC guidance that gatherings shouldn’t exceed 50 people, the states voting today — Arizona, Florida and Illinois — all have multiple confirmed cases of the illness and are pushing citizens to consider their mail-in options.

  • Ohio was also set to vote on Tuesday, but has declared a public health emergency, postponing its primaries because of concerns about coronavirus.
  • Its state Democratic Party chairman David Pepper released a statement that included another alternative: conduct the primary entirely by vote-by-mail.
  • In a Monday press release email sent out from Joe Biden’s campaign about an Ohio tele-town hall, it concluded: “If you’re a member of an at-risk population or have been exposed to a diagnosed case of coronavirus, we encourage you to explore absentee ballots and vote by mail options, including emergency voting exceptions in your state.”

The big picture: Coronavirus has presented a new analog twist to the election — a race that was expected to be so technologically advanced, Iowa once considered adopting digital caucuses.

  • Its lasting effects could mean polling places and voting lines are on the chopping block for future U.S. contests.

Read more.

The race to change how America votes

The race to change how America votes

Axios: With in-person elections on Nov. 3 the hope but no longer a certainty, states are racing to chip away age-old barriers to alternatives in time for the general election.

Why it matters: State laws and political calculations remain formidable obstacles to expanding voting options. And the price tag for changes could top $2 billion.

“The more people who vote early or vote by mail means fewer people standing in line on election day,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told Axios.  Read more.

"Time Is of the Essence”: How States Can Shore Up Mail Voting

“Time Is of the Essence”: How States Can Shore Up Mail Voting

The Appeal: As many states postpone primaries due to the coronavirus outbreak, Oregon still plans to hold its May elections. “Because Oregon votes by mail, we do not have to be concerned about social distancing issues at polling places that so many other states are struggling with,” Secretary of State Bev Clarno said last week. “Many states are looking to implement our vote by mail system as a safer way to conduct elections in November.”

Oregon adopted a vote-by-mail system in 1998, and four other states have followed since (Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, and Washington). In these states, all registered voters receive a ballot; they then mail it back or drop it off at a designated location.

Calls to expand vote-by-mail nationwide are now ubiquitous in the face of social distancing.

California is moving in that direction. Officials in Arizona and New Mexicowant authorization to send ballots to all voters. Advocates and scholarsmade the case for universal mail voting weeks ago. And some federal bills would help states get there.

In many states, though, implementing vote-by-mail would require a lot of work. It is a shift that raises challenges ranging from logistics and capacity to concerns about voter access and safeguards against suppression.

To unpack these challenges, I talked to Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the Democracy Fund who in 2016 co-authored “The New Realities of Mail Voting” with the Bipartisan Policy Center. A former elections administrator in Arizona, Patrick was appointed to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration by President Barack Obama.  Read more.

How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus

How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus

The Brennan Center’s plan to ensure that the 2020 election is free, fair, accessible, and secure

Brennan Center: The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) presents a difficult and novel challenge to the administration of the 2020 general election. Recent election emergencies have largely been caused by catastrophic weather events, and our country has done little election planning for pandemics. Unlike a hurricane, a pandemic does not have a discrete and relatively predictable end point. And avoiding large-scale social contact is a central feature of combating the crisis. These elements create distinct challenges for election officials on top of the significant and ongoing threats to the security of our election infrastructure.

Given the scope of the challenge, large-scale preparation, backed by the concerted support of the government and the public, is needed immediately to ensure that the 2020 election is free, fair, accessible, and secure. We will need substantial modifications to our election procedures, substantial flexibility, and a substantial infusion of resources to ensure that every eligible American can register and vote safely, securely, accessibly, and as conveniently as possible; to ensure that every ballot cast by an eligible voter counts; to maintain the security of the election; and to ensure the safety of election workers. Below we outline the critical changes needed to ensure the election works.

The key recommendations fall into five categories: (1) polling place modification and preparation; (2) expanded early voting; (3) a universal vote-by-mail option; (4) voter registration modification and preparation, including expanded online registration; and (5) voter education and manipulation prevention. We recommend that each state government establish an election pandemic task force to determine how best to implement relevant policy recommendations in their state. State and local officials must understand the laws and emergency rules applicable to their jurisdictions and consider appropriate adjustments to ensure that election officials have the authority needed to accomplish these modifications. For its part, Congress should immediately appropriate funds to ensure that election officials have the resources needed to make the needed adjustments to their voting systems. Congress should also establish baseline national rules to ensure that every eligible American can vote safely, securely, and accessibly in the midst of the pandemic. In the absence of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, care must be taken to ensure that changes are nondiscriminatory and do not negatively impact access for communities of color.  Read more.