The two most consequential occurrences in American society in almost two decades—coronavirus and the 2020 election’s referendum on Trumpism—may well be headed for a collision course in November, with the potential to seriously imperil the voting process.
Some states have announced that they will postpone their primary elections, and election officials are already fretting about November. By and large, we do elections only one way in the U.S.: while some people mail in ballots, the vast majority cast their votes at a polling place. That simply might not be possible in 2020.
But, like universal basic income payments, vote-by-mail may be one of those unlikely ideas that suddenly seem possible in the strange new reality of the pandemic.
Today, Congress is in the heat of negotiations over a third stimulus package to help everyday working Americans, businesses, and the healthcare system survive the coming surge of coronavirus cases. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office announced yesterday that its stimulus package proposal includes language about the coming election and vote-by-mail. It echoes the main pieces of a vote-by-mail bill cowritten by Democrats Ron Wyden and Amy Klobuchar in the Senate. From a statement from Pelosi’s office Monday:
“[The package] ensures that states can carry out this year’s election with billions in grant funding for states through the Election Assistance Commission and a national requirement for both 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail, including mailing a ballot to all registered voters in an emergency.”
Republicans in the Senate have released their own proposal, which includes just $140 million for the states to prepare for the election, and offers no guidelines or reforms, or stipulations on how the money is to be spent. Republicans have said consistently they don’t want to wrest control over elections, national, or otherwise, from the states.
But 33 states already let residents vote by mail without providing any particular reason. And Colorado, Washington State, and Oregon have all-mail elections.
Not that mail-in voting is cheap or easy. And it might bring problems of its own to the process. “Mail ballots are the most labor-intensive [way to count votes], and the switch to them in 2020, as you well know, is causing delays in final results,” former Florida election official Ion Sancho told the Independent Media Institute’s Voting Booth blog. “That is becoming increasingly evident,” he wrote. “And that runs counter to one of the Republicans’ main goals, which is trying to end the election on election night. That is certainly their goal in Florida.”
Avoiding such snags is part of the reason for the generous funding for states proposed in Wyden’s and Klobuchar’s bill. States would need it to put in place the infrastructure and people power needed to support large-scale mail-in voting.
Wyden introduced his own vote-from-home bill–the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020–on March 11. The bill says that if 25% of states have declared an emergency during an election, all states will be required to offer a mail-in voting option. The funding would come through the Election Assistance Commission, with the stipulation that states let people vote by mail without an excuse. The states would be required, in fact, to mail out a ballot to all registered voters if a state of emergency exists in more than 25% of states. Voters would also be allowed 15 days of early voting.
With coronavirus gaining steam in the U.S., Wyden teamed up with Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee that oversees voting, to release a new bill a week later on March 18. The bill, called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA), built on Wyden’s bill and reflected some of the feedback and concerns the earlier bill received in the Senate. For example, it added provisions enabling voting on Native American reservations, voting by disabled people, and included a prohibition on internet voting.
The Wyden-Klobuchar Bill now has 25 cosponsors, all Democrats, and has been endorsed by the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards, Stacy Abrams’s Fair Fight Georgia group, and the secretaries of state of California and Colorado.
“That all the sponsors are Democrats illustrates how the issue has often been perceived as partisan,” says the Brookings Institute’s Tom Wheeler in a blog post today. He says the fact that so many states have already embraced no-excuse mail-in voting suggests that it doesn’t have to be.
The thinking behind Wyden’s and Klobuchar’s bills has already been reflected in the coronavirus bailout package coming from the House. Wyden has talked to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer about pushing for the addition of more mail-in voting funding and guidelines to the Senate version of the bailout bill, which Senators have been arguing about for past few days.
Over the next several days it’s likely that Pelosi and Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and White House officials will enter negotiations to hammer out a final version of the bailout package. The part about election funding won’t likely be the biggest bone of contention, but the growing threat of coronavirus to the election may persuade McConnell and other Republican Senators to accept that part of the House bill.
“The message here is simple: we have an eight-month head start,” Wheeler writes. “Denying the potential problem or waiting to see whether COVID-19 reappears in the fall before we act is not a solution.”