A bipartisan push to expand mail-in voting is underway across the country as election officials brace for a spike in demand from voters spooked by the coronavirus pandemic — despite Republican opposition in Washington to help pay for it.
House Democrats have asked for as much as $2 billion in emergency funding to distribute to election officials who are scrambling to expand absentee balloting and take other steps to avoid pandemic-related chaos on Election Day in November.
Dozens of state and local election officials, both Republican and Democratic, have signaled their desire for the funding — a sign of how the crisis is altering the usually sharply divided politics around voting measures.
Still, Republicans in Washington say they are inclined to oppose an effort to include the funding and new rules on how states run their elections in a $2 trillion coronavirus response package, with some casting the effort as part of a Democratic strategy to try to load up the bill with unrelated pet priorities.
"WHAT DO.. . . Early voting, windmills, labor bailouts & #GreenNewDeal have to do with helping workers & #SmallBiz survive the coronavirus crisis? Nothing," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, tweeted Monday, March 23.
WHAT DO....— Rep. Kevin Brady (@RepKevinBrady) March 23, 2020
Early voting, windmills, labor bailouts & #GreenNewDeal have to do with helping workers & #SmallBiz survive the coronavirus crisis?
That's why @SpeakerPelosi partisan bill is DOA.
Seriously, let's stop delaying Senate bill. #HelpWorkersNotWeirdStuff pic.twitter.com/C1cpSRTjmS
Voting advocates — and election officials in both parties — see it differently. They predict a colossal surge in demand for early and mail-in balloting by voters seeking to protect themselves against the highly infectious coronavirus. Preparing for it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a cost directly related to the pandemic, they say.
"It's either going to be vote-by-mail or nothing if we have to deal with a worst-case scenario," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Monday on a conference call with reporters. Wyden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who announced her husband's coronavirus diagnosis Monday, have sponsored a Senate bill similar to the provisions that House Democrats are trying to put in the emergency package.
Some GOP lawmakers have said election-related funding can come later, but advocates said there is little time to waste for officials on the ground.
"They need the money now," said Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "If we wait a couple of months, it will be too late. They won't be able to use it effectively or make the changes needed to avoid significant chaos on Election Day in November. Time is already tight."
Weiser added that while public health is properly the top concern of government right now, protecting the country's democracy is also crucial.
"This is a significant challenge to our electoral system that's going to be a heavy lift to fix," she said. "The election professionals understand that."
The House Democratic proposal calls for a raft of election measures, including a mandate that all states make mail-in voting available to anyone who wants it, offer a minimum of 15 days of early voting — and help pay for all of it, a cost that the Brennan Center has estimated at up to $2 billion.
Much of that cost would come from printing hundreds of thousands more ballots and envelopes than ever before; paying for postage; and purchasing expensive, high-capacity scanners that can count large numbers of ballots at once. The price of postage alone, according to the Brennan Center, could reach $600 million for local governments.
Only five states conduct their elections primarily through mail-in balloting. An additional one-third require voters to have a reason, such as illness or travel, meaning laws would need to be changed to allow wider use. The rest allow voting by mail for those who ask for it, but even in many of those states, rules requiring ballots to be requested in person or enforcing strict signature-matching regimens serve as barriers to participation.
The House Democrats' proposal would eliminate these discrepancies by requiring states to adhere to standardized rules surrounding mail-in voting.
In the meantime, some election officials are trying to expand mail-in voting on their own.
"I just placed an order for 50,000 envelopes and 50,000 sheets of blank ballot stock," said Jason Baker, the elections director in Clark County, Ohio — a purchase, he said, that is not yet accounted for in the county budget. And that's just for the primary, which was postponed from March 17 until June 2, with a mandate that anyone who didn't vote already may do so by mail if they choose.
Preparing for the general election will cost much more, and that's just for one county of about 80,000 registered voters, Baker said.
Tina Barton, city clerk of Rochester Hills, Michigan, said local election administrators desperately need an infusion of federal money to cover the costs of expanding absentee voting — from postage on the envelopes to mailers educating voters about the process.
Barton, a nonpartisan appointee who has run for political office as a Republican, said she is wary of sweeping policy changes that could undercut state and local control of elections. But she said some changes will have to be made in Michigan if the state expects most people to vote by mail in November.
For example, election administrators there cannot start processing absentee ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day and cannot go home until they are finished, creating a huge challenge if the number of absentee ballots spikes.
"Someone is going to have to change the way we count ballots and make sure there is more time given for the processing if we are in an at-home situation," said Barton, who sits on the federal Election Assistance Commission's board of advisers.
Some state and local election officials oppose mandating mail-in balloting in November out of concern that their electorates are not used to it and that they don't have time to properly implement such a system. Instead, they are emphasizing making voting by mail an option for anyone who requests it.
For many years the expansion of mail voting has been seen as a partisan issue, with Democrats typically supporting the move and Republicans typically opposing it.
But in the face of the current health crisis, the partisan divide — at least outside Washington — appears to be closing.
More than three dozen state and local election officials, many of them Republicans, signed onto a letter to congressional leaders published by the Brennan Center on Sunday seeking federal election assistance.
In addition, the chairs of the state Republican and Democratic parties in Indiana wrote a joint letter last week urging election officials to expand access to absentee voting. The mayors of Green Bay, Appleton and Neenah, Wis., are calling for the state's April 7 presidential primary to be held primarily by mail; two are Republicans.
And in New York, some GOP legislators have joined Democratic Attorney General Letitia James in calling for every eligible voter to receive an absentee ballot for the April 28 presidential primary.
Wyden said he has "never seen anything like the support we're picking up" for the vote-by-mail approach.
Still, so far, Republican senators have not come on board. "Election-related provisions have nothing to do with fighting this pandemic or saving the economy," said one senior GOP Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said she expected the legislature to be receptive to recommendations from voting rights advocates. But whatever happens, she said, officials must clearly communicate their decisions to the public.
"People are sitting at home, and they are anxious," Turcer said, arguing that confusion about elections "just compounds people's worries" about the covid-19 crisis. "There are pros and cons of all sorts of decisions we could make here, but what we really do need is that clarity."
This article was written by Amy Gardner, Elise Viebeck and Joe Marks, reporters for The Washington Post.
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