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Congress must act now to help states with vote-by-mail in November, experts say

Election officials will need more resources to prepare for voting by mail and in person

Voters fill out their ballots at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg, Va., on Election Day 2018. Congress must act now to help states prepare for a surge vote-by-mail requests, experts, advocates and lawmakers say.
Voters fill out their ballots at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg, Va., on Election Day 2018. Congress must act now to help states prepare for a surge vote-by-mail requests, experts, advocates and lawmakers say. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The November presidential and congressional elections are a little more than four months away, and Congress must act now to help states prepare for a surge in Americans seeking to vote by mail because of pandemic-driven fears that are likely to keep them from voting in person, according to election experts, advocates and lawmakers.

As many as 30 states have already lowered barriers for voters seeking to mail in their ballots because of COVID-19. Some, like Nevada, have gone as far as sending pre-printed mail-in ballots to all registered voters in some counties.

But states scrambling to scale up voting by mail also need to be prepared for voters to show up in person at regular polling places because of glitches in the mailing process or a failure to receive mail-in ballots in advance. That could increase costs not only for new equipment but for staffing to handle both ways to vote, experts say.

Several states that postponed their primaries from March to late May and early June saw voters turn to voting by mail in large numbers, said Edgardo Cortés, an election security adviser at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“It doesn’t matter whether you encourage it or not, that’s what voters want,” he said about voters’ preference for mailed ballots. “So you have to be ready for it, and state officials need to be ready to handle that influx.”

The Brennan Center is urging Congress to provide as much as $2 billion in federal grants in the economic stimulus bill currently under discussion to help states buy new equipment and hire and train poll workers.

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In March, Congress provided states with $400 million as part of a roughly $2 trillion economic relief package (PL 116-136) to help them prepare for elections affected by the pandemic. The House last month passed an economic package (H.R. 6800) largely along party lines — with Democrats favoring and Republicans opposing — that would include $3.6 billion in grants to states to help them prepare contingency plans for November and for election resilience.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called that relief legislation an “unserious effort,” and the White House has said it would veto the bill if it became law.

Nevertheless, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration committee, told reporters this week that “more money will be available” for election-related grants in the fourth economic stimulus package that Congress is considering. He did not say how much money lawmakers are likely to provide.

Turnout higher with vote-by-mail

The money Congress has provided thus far for election efforts pales in comparison with what it has authorized to prop up companies facing loss of demand because of the pandemic, said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a group that advocates voting by mail.

Funding for states to boost election infrastructure and preparedness is “so critical,” McReynolds said. Congress “allocated $400 million for 50 states, showing their lack of care about elections, but at the same time gave $60 billion for the airline industry.”

Data collected by the Vote at Home Institute showed that in the primaries held thus far in 2020, the top six states and 13 out of the top 15 in terms of turnout saw 60 percent or more votes cast by mail.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a longtime proponent of vote-by-mail and whose state is one of five in the country that casts votes entirely by mail, said he feared an “electoral Chernobyl” in the presidential election in November unless Congress and states act swiftly to boost expansion of mail-in ballots and plan for other pandemic-related emergencies.

“There is no indication that pandemic consequences are going to evaporate any time soon. Election experts are already warning there is little time left to prevent chaos in November,” Wyden wrote in a Medium post this week. “But if Congress and states move immediately, it is possible to prevent hundreds of thousands of Americans from differing political philosophies from being disenfranchised by the indifference and incompetence of their elected leaders.”

If “Congress and states don’t act immediately, our country could face an electoral Chernobyl this fall,” Wyden wrote, referring to the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union.

Wyden pointed to the June 9 primary in Georgia, where voters stood in long lines for hours on a hot day as poll workers confronted equipment failure and absentee ballots that were not delivered in time, and some precincts couldn’t process absentee ballots for days because employees were affected by COVID-19.

Richard Barron, the elections administrator for Fulton County, which covers most of Atlanta, told reporters that despite expanding voting by mail, “we still had to do our full complement of Election Day infrastructure,” according to The New York Times.  

Federal money, federal rules

While proponents of voting by mail say such experiences call for more preparation, some, like Blunt, take a different view.

“One of the things the elections in Georgia last week showed is the difficulty of dramatically changing the way you conduct an election,” Blunt told reporters. “And that’s one of my concerns.”

If Congress adds any requirements or standards for how federal grants ought to be used, “there’ll be a federal takeover of local elections,” he said.

States that expand voting by mail may need to not only add specialized equipment such as envelope-opening machines and high-speed scanners, but also buy ballot-tracking software and signature verification systems, and figure out how to get the physical space necessary to sort, process and count completed ballots, said Marian Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, a group that advocates transparent and verifiable elections.

Some states may need to amend their laws and allow poll workers to start counting mailed ballots before Election Day to avoid delays in announcing results, Schneider said.

Her group has called on Congress to “to pass funding that election officials desperately need to bolster staffing, equipment and other infrastructure, and we urge election officials and government at all levels to act quickly” to ramp up voting by mail and other aspects of the infrastructure.

The 8,000-plus election jurisdictions across the country take different approaches to conducting elections and the same variations come into play with voting by mail, said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, who also serves as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Some states and jurisdictions centralize the effort, while others spread it out by precincts. The distributed approach may mean hiring and training more poll workers, whereas a centralized approach can require additional office space as well as present the danger of spreading COVID-19 among people all working in one location, Pate said.

“More than technology, it’s about how you distribute resources,” he said.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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