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

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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.