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Voting in a pandemic: Officials sound alarm about November elections

Wisconsin holds primary despite pandemic

The legal and political battles in Wisconsin, along with the gripping images of voters donning facial masks and gloves standing in hours-long, socially-distanced lines to cast ballots Tuesday, could be just a preview of what lies ahead, as states across the country anticipate the lingering impact of the pandemic on the presidential election in November. 

Election officials from both parties are already sounding the alarm about the need for more resources to ensure health safety and expand alternatives to in-person and day-of voting. They also anticipate protracted partisan fights over what the general election could and should look like in the age of Coronavirus.

"We cannot let our Democracy be casualty of the current health pandemic. We cannot wait until October to gear up for alternative methods to vote. We have to get ahead of it, we have to start now," said Alex Padilla, California's secretary of state. "There is an urgency here." 

US-HEALTH-VIRUS-POLITICS-VOTE-WISCONSIN
Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear as the Wisconsin primary kicks off despite the coronavirus pandemics on April 7, 2020. DEREK R. HENKLE/AFP via Getty Images)

Tammy Jones, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, wrote a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis this week raising concern about preparations. "We anticipate a significant statewide shortage of poll workers for the 2020 elections," she wrote. "Alternatives or additional voting methods must be made available to counties." 

And officials in red states like Louisiana are urging Congress to push legislation that would provide additional funding to states to carry out the elections safely in November. 

Polling shows that voters are also thinking ahead about the impact the virus could have on elections. A new Reuters/Ipsos survey found 72% of all U.S. adults support requirements for mail-in ballots as a way to protect voters should the virus continue to spread, including 79% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans.  

The Push to Expand Vote by Mail

The concept of mail-in voting is at the forefront of the debate over how to proceed with November's election. Four states already conduct their general elections by mail, and Hawaii is set to become the fifth state to move entirely to vote-by-mail with elections this year. Another 28 states and Washington D.C. offer "no-excuse" absentee or mail voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Now, Democrats are pushing for it to be implemented nationwide. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden have introduced legislation to "ensure that voters in all states have 20 days of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail." 

The senators have been collaborating with a bipartisan group of secretaries of state across the country and acknowledge that the more likely reality is a hybrid system of expanded mail-in voting and early opportunities in addition to in-person voting on Election Day. 

"We are not reinventing the wheel here. This is upscaling what is already taking place," Wyden told reporters on Thursday. 

"The goal to us from a public health standpoint became clear: minimize exposure at polling places and maximize vote by mail," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, noting that those goals "come with steep, steep price tags." 

The newly passed stimulus package allocated $400 million to help secure elections, but Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing for additional funds. The Brennan Center estimates that ensuring a vote-by-mail option in all states would cost at least $1.4 billion, which would include ballot printing, postage costs, dropbox security, ballot tracking and processing, staffing, and additional technology. The center also estimates another $270 million would be necessary to ensure the safety of in-person voting and expand early voting.

Padilla, who also heads the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, said most states have some capacity for vote-by-mail elections. "It is a matter of ramping up that capacity, not experimenting with an untested tool," he said, adding it will take political will and resources to do so. 

Florida Holds Presidential Primary Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
TALLAHASSEE, FL - MARCH 17: Leon County Supervisor of Election employees open mail in Florida primary ballots to run through a voting machine on March 17, 2020 in Tallahassee, Florida.  Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

But if Wisconsin's election is any indication, the political willpower isn't easy to come by. The state has no-excuse absentee voting, and a record number of people requested ballots, but some voters still went to the polls on Tuesday in the middle of a global pandemic, despite several legal challenges and some political Hail Marys.

The GOP-controlled Wisconsin legislature didn't consider requests from Democratic Governor Tony Evers to first send every registered voter an absentee ballot and, a week later, to conduct the election primarily by mail voting with a May deadline, the first time Evers suggested moving the date of the election. On Monday, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court shot down a last-ditch attempt by Evers to suspend in-person voting until June, and the United States Supreme Court curtailed a lower court's decision to extend the deadline for returning absentee ballots, after the Republican National Committee, Wisconsin Republican Party and Wisconsin Legislature challenged that ruling.

At the national level, President Trump is leading the charge against expanded vote by mail. "People cheat," Trump said at his daily briefing on Tuesday, though he, too, voted absentee by mail in Florida's primary last month. "The mail ballots are corrupt in my opinion. They collect them, go out and get people to sign them, forgeries in many cases." Mr. Trump argued that his Florida vote last month was different because he was out of the state on Election Day. 

The Republican National Committee and the Trump re-election campaign have been pushing back against efforts for a widespread vote-by-mail system. "Democrats couldn't even make a vote counting app work in Iowa and now they suddenly believe they can redesign the entire U.S. election system," said Justin Clark, the campaign's senior counsel. 

Instead, Clark said the decisions about election laws and necessary changes should be left to the states. "Vote-by-mail options can certainly play a role during a pandemic by enabling at-risk voters to vote safely. But these options already exist in every state," he said. 

For his part, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has said that while he prefers in person voting, backup options must be explored now. "We have to make our democracy, as well as dealing with the disease, function. We can do both. We should be thinking now ahead,"  he told NBC News' "The Today Show" this week. "We cannot delay or postpone a constitutionally required November election."

No "Quickie Print": Challenges for mail-in voting

There are several challenges in expanding vote-by-mail. For starters, the current timeline is tight. States that already have a system have had one in place for a long period of time. 

Washington, for example, first started allowing all voters to be a permanent absentee ballot voter in 1993. It took more than a decade and a historically close governor's race in 2004 for the state legislature to allow counties to vote by mail. Even then, Washington needed an extra five years to move over to a complete vote-by-mail system, according to Kim Wynman, the state's Republican Secretary of State, who is advising with her counterparts in other states to build up mail voting. 

Wyman said staffing is a challenge for mail in voting as well as in person, and COVID-19 could have an impact on that as well.  "Most of our workers are retired personnel which is the highest risk group involving people of 60 years and older," Wyman said.

Significant changes at the state level would likely require legislative action, and convening legislatures are difficult and risky while social distancing protocols are still in place. 

And even states that already have a robust absentee voting system say it will be difficult to scale up in time for November's election.

In Florida, for example, absentee voting is popular and voters don't need an excuse to vote by mail. In 2016, 2.7 million cast their ballots by mail. But officials there say moving to an all vote by system isn't something the state would be ready to do by November. 

One difficulty in scaling up involves the fundamental process of printing and mailing ballots. 

"From our standpoint, we need to make those preparations of ordering supplies...you don't get to go down to quickie print and say, 'give me some ballots,'" said Ron Labasky, general counsel for the Florida Supervisor of Elections. "They are sophisticated pieces of paper that go through our system to tabulate votes." 

Florida officials are anticipating increased numbers of absentee ballots this fall, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, and have asked the governor to allow county supervisors to mail requested ballots up to 45 days before Election Day, and to fill ballot requests within three business days. 

"One of the challenges is you are at the mercy of the postal service," says Labasky. 

The state has also asked permission for county supervisors to designate additional early voting sites, and to make the sites available for up to 22 days, including Election Day. 

In Wisconsin, there have been reports from people who requested their absentee ballots back in March, but never received them. On Wednesday, Neil Albrecht, the executive director for the city of Milwaukee Election Commission, said he was asking the U.S. Postal Service to investigate ballots that were supposed to be sent out on March 22 and 23, but never reached voters. A majority of ballots sent those two dates did reach voters, he said. 

On Thursday, Wisconsin's U.S. senators, Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Ron Johnson, wrote a letter asking the U.S. Postal Service inspector general to investigate "numerous reports of absentee ballots not being delivered in a timely manner."

"The United States Postal Service (USPS) in short, had an outsized role in ensuring Wisconsinites could safely exercise the right to vote and participate in our democracy," they wrote, noting the unprecedented number of absentee ballot requests due to the coronavirus. "Unfortunately, there have been numerous accounts from the state that USPS failed to fulfill that critical function for some voters."

Wisconsin, like many states, offers no-excuse absentee voting, but in April's election a record 1.3 million voters asked for absentee ballots. Albrecht said the incredible number of requests put a strain on clerks, postal workers and others involved in processing those applications and distributing absentee ballots.

"Wisconsin is not a state presently set up to administer a by mail absentee voting election," Albrecht said. "The infrastructure that is in place was, across the board, tested by the volume of absentee votes that come in."

Wisconsin Election Proceeds Despite Stay-At-Home Order During Coronavirus Pandemic
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 07: An aerial view from a drone shows voters waiting in line to enter a polling place at Riverside University High School on April 07, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Scott Olson / Getty Images

Officials also acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, and making adjustments to prepare for this November will be a heavy lift. But experts say states need to prepare for an influx of people voting absentee out of fear for exposure at the polls. 

"Voters are going to choose to vote by mail more than they would have in another election," says Matthew Weil, director of the Election Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "Any election official that doesn't want to get caught flat footed needs to be prepared for an increase in vote by mail."

That influx in absentee ballots could also mean there will be "key swing states this year that are going to be crushed by mail-in ballots, and they just don't have the experience working with it to get those results out quickly," said Weil, noting states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. "We are going to have this kind of vacuum in the days after election day where we just don't know who won some pretty key states." 

States guiding the way

While a nationalized vote-by-mail system isn't likely to be implemented anytime soon, experts say it is more likely that states move to expand options to augment in-person voting.

Hawaii, for example, already had plans to move to all vote-by-mail in 2020, thanks to legislation passed last year. Election officials in that state have been preparing for nearly two years. Efforts have included conducting list maintenance to ensure voter rolls are accurate, as well as multiple rounds of voter outreach since last summer about the changes and to collect voter signatures to match returned ballots.

The Alaska Democratic Party canceled its in-person primary scheduled for April 4 and moved entirely to vote-by-mail over health concerns, and the state legislature passed a provision giving the lieutenant governor the power to make elections through the fall vote-by-mail, specifically if there is a health risk.

The move garnered bipartisan support in Alaska where the state's largest population hub, Anchorage, which amounts to about 40% of the population, already votes by mail. 

Republican State Senator Gary Stevens, who served on a task force studying the issue, said he is open to implementing statewide vote by mail permanently. "We just have to make sure that as we move long, that it's done properly," he said. 

In Montana, Governor Steve Bullock signed a directive in March giving counties the ability to choose if they wanted to move to all-mail for the June 2 primary election due to coronavirus concerns. All 56 counties in the state opted to vote-by-mail. It does not, however, apply for the general election. 

And this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order to allow all eligible voters to vote absentee in the state's primary on June 23, setting up another significant test for a state that isn't accustomed to large scale vote-by-mail. 

Preventing against fraud 

While voter fraud remains rare across the country, and is punishable by law, some secretaries of state are wary about expanding mail-in voting. 

"We don't need outside federal guidelines right now to tell us how to run an election," said West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner. "Each state has its own legacy, its own history, and you have to trust those local officials who say, 'I don't want to expand opportunities for misuse of the election process.'" 

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin argued that "election inaccuracies fall upon the states and local governments, not the federal government," so each state should be able to decide their election practices. 

In 2018, election results in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District were overturned after a Republican operative was charged with absentee ballot tampering. 

Still such examples are rare, and states that have already implemented robust vote my mail systems say there are ample security measures in place like up to date voter rolls, signature verification measures, the ability for voters to track their ballots, and other physical security controls. Proponents have also argued for increased drop boxes for ballots.  

Colorado Secretary of State Jenna Griswold said her state has "a history of extremely clean voting" by mail, and that "Republicans have won statewide in Colorado using mail ballots...this should not be a partisan conversation." 

"The potential for fraud truly is a figment of the President's imagination. There's no evidence at all of anything that he described," Alaska Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich said. 

"This always comes down to sending the strongest possible message: there are consequences if you rip the system off, there are consequences for election fraud," said Senator Wyden. 

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