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Voting by mail could get a boost during the US coronavirus outbreak

Two Democratic senators want to include new vote-by-mail provisions in Congress’s latest coronavirus stimulus package.

Election worker Ruth Ard opens vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary in Renton, Washington, on March 10, 2020.
Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

Two senators have a plan to make sure voting in the 2020 presidential primary and general election doesn’t mean risking Covid-19: voting by mail.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) plan to introduce an updated bill to expand both in-person early voting and no-excuse absentee vote by mail, and requiring states to set up contingency plans in case of an emergency like coronavirus. A previous version of their bill would have provided $500 million in federal money to help states make their election systems responsive to the worsening Covid-19 crisis, but that figure could change.

Wyden and Klobuchar are hoping to include their bill in the next massive coronavirus legislative package the Senate takes up.

Setting up a vote-by-mail system has taken on a new urgency. The coronavirus has already caused Ohio to postpone their March 17 election to later in the year. Other states, including Kentucky, Louisiana, and Georgia are also pushing their elections later into the calendar.

“The best way to ensure that this virus doesn’t keep people from the ballot box is to bring the ballot box to them,” the two senators wrote. “We must allow every American the ability to vote by mail. And we must expand early voting so that voters who are not able to vote by mail are not exposed to the elevated infection risks of long lines and crowded polling locations.”

Republicans have historically been opposed to measures that expand voting access, but in a recent op-ed, Wyden and Klobuchar wrote they hope the impending coronavirus crisis will spur bipartisan action on the issue, especially ahead of the general election in November.

“In the midst of this crisis, we must also remember to protect the foundation of our democracy by ensuring that every eligible American can safely cast a ballot in the upcoming elections,” the senators wrote. “The coronavirus should not stop our citizens from casting their ballots.”

The US system for elections is highly decentralized; each state has the power to run its own elections. Even if the bill is passed, it could hit some legal hurdles if states object to the federal government mandating a vote-by-mail option.

The impacts of the coronavirus are already being felt in the US campaign season. The remaining Democratic candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (both in their late 70s) — have replaced in-person rallies with virtual town halls after citing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. A Sunday CNN Democratic debate with the two was moved to Washington, DC, without a studio audience. President Donald Trump has also canceled a scheduled rally.

But while it’s easy enough to cancel rallies, postponing elections is more of a challenge. Three states — Florida, Illinois, and Arizona — will continue their primaries on Tuesday, though officials are expecting turnout to be lower. Seven more states and territories that were scheduled to conduct their primaries between March 24 and April 7 now much decide whether to postpone or keep the original date.

The bulk of the concern is whether turnout could be dampened because voters are afraid to go to the polls or whether poll workers (the majority of whom are over 61 years old, according to a government report) are afraid to show up. And the greater fear is that those who show up risk exposing themselves to coronavirus, especially if they have to wait in line for long periods.

Many states allow for absentee ballots, and a growing number are adopting vote by mail (including Wyden’s home state of Oregon), but the practice isn’t as easy or widespread as it is in, say, California or Washington. Wyden’s bill aims to change that.

What Wyden and Klobuchar’s bill would do

The updated bill, called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, would require all states to expand early voting and mail-in voting systems if and when a critical mass of states declare coronavirus-related states of emergency (or another kind of emergency happens like a massive natural disaster).

Under Wyden and Klobuchar’s plan, if 25 percent of US states declare an emergency, that would trigger a requirement to allow any voter to vote from home via a mail-in ballot. Here’s what the bill would do:

  • Expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote by mail to all states.
  • Offer voters the ability to submit an electronic request for an absentee ballot rather than request one in person or with a paper form.
  • Require states to offer voters the choice to receive their blank absentee ballots. electronically to print at home and return in the mail. Currently, this option is only available to overseas voters and those in the military.
  • Accept absentee ballot requests up until five days before an election for blank ballots sent in the mail and up until one day before the election for electronic print-at-home ballots.
  • Accept ballots postmarked by Election Day in case there are delays due to postal workers being quarantined.
  • Require states to offer prepaid, self-sealing envelopes, as well as ballot tracking and postage, in order to minimize the possible spread of the coronavirus through licking envelopes.
  • Help states recruit younger poll workers, so that older poll workers who traditionally make up the majority of election day volunteers could stay home.

There are varying levels of vote-by-mail access in each state. Currently, 34 states and DC allow any voter to request an absentee ballot or vote by mail. That leaves a remaining 16 states with restrictions on who can request an absentee ballot.

Here’s a map showing what each state allows, per Daily Kos writer Stephen Wolf.

The bill likely won’t be passed in time for the four states holding primaries next month. But as these states start to prepare for the reality of voting in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers need to prepare for how a disease outbreak can impact Americans’ right to vote.