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Can Vote-by-Mail Save US Elections From Coronavirus?

In US, Coronavirus Sparks Calls for Voting Reform
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In US, Coronavirus Sparks Calls for Voting Reform

As millions of Americans hunker down to avoid the coronavirus, they’ve turned to technology to do business, keep in touch with family and stay somewhat social.

But when it comes to voting in this year's presidential election, the solution to staying safe may be decidedly low-tech.

As in snail mail.

Most Americans 18 and older are used to gathering in person to cast their ballots at a local polling place. This year, faced with the prospect of mandatory lockdowns and social distancing, that’s likely to be too dangerous.

Already, 14 states have postponed their primary election voting because of the virus – with the notable exception of Wisconsin, which will hold its primary contest Tuesday. These postponements have posed a major disruption to the normal presidential nominating process.

So across the U.S., election officials are looking at mail ballots. Because voting can take place at home with little more than a pen and signature, vote-by-mail offers a way to both protect voters’ health and give all a chance to participate.

"We're talking about an emergency situation, but there is bipartisan support across the aisle for vote-by-mail election reform,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which promotes mail balloting.

"Considering what's going on with the coronavirus, maybe voters don't want to be exposed,” added McReynolds, a former director of elections in Denver, Colorado.

Despite its allure, voting by mail would be a sea change for most of America. Skeptics and even some supporters question whether there’s enough time to put the mechanisms and security for widespread mail voting in place by November.

“Facilitating a well-orchestrated vote-by-mail election is the equivalent of a logistical nightmare,” researchers Collier Fernekes and Rachel Orey wrote in an April 1 analysis for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington research group.

“And with a global pandemic sweeping the country, this logistical nightmare can only get worse,” they said, cautioning about possible voter confusion.

The recent $2.4 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump includes $400 million to help elections officials adapt to the coronavirus.

But proponents are pushing for far more, including Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate who have drafted bills to give all Americans the ability to vote by mail.

How Vote by Mail Works
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National vote, run locally

While the United States will vote on November 3 to choose a president and members of Congress, the actual election machinery is run by state and local officials. They operate under a hodgepodge of different laws specifying who can vote and how.

Of the 50 U.S. states, only five conduct all their elections almost entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Still, large numbers of ballots are also cast by mail in many other states as well. These “absentee” ballots are for residents in the military, those traveling at election time or the disabled.

But 33 states, most in the West and Midwest, and the District of Columbia now allow absentee voting for any reason – or “no-excuse” mail ballots.

Among them is California, the state with the most voters in the nation. In the 2018 midterm Congressional elections, more than 8 million Californians sent absentee ballots by mail – or two out of every three votes cast.

Last month, Michigan reported an avalanche of absentee ballots for its presidential primary election, the first under a new state law allowing “no-excuse” absentees. Wyoming and Alaska have said they will go all-mail this year, Reuters reported.

In all, nearly a quarter of ballots nationwide were cast by mail in the 2016 presidential election, in which Republican Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

During the 2018 midterm voting, Democrats captured the House of Representatives from Republicans. A record number of mail ballots – 42 million – helped boost the highest turnout in a century, the Vote at Home Institute said.

The Oregon model

Oregon is the first state to adopt universal vote-by-mail and held its first all-mail presidential votes in 2000. Election officials there say the process has increased participation, and the state ranks among the highest in voter turnout.

Oregon voters receive ballots at least two weeks before Election Day. They arrive with two envelopes: a privacy sleeve and a return envelope with pre-paid postage.

Once a voter marks his or her ballot, it goes into the privacy sleeve. Voters sign the outside of the return envelope. That signature is compared to one placed on file earlier at the time they register to vote.

A ballot isn’t removed from the privacy envelope and counted unless the signatures match. Voters can either mail their ballots or drop them off at official drive-up locations or election offices if it’s more convenient.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden was the first U.S. senator to be elected in an all-mail vote in a 1996 special election. Along with former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, he is sponsoring legislation to make mail ballots universally available in November.

“We’re not saying to get rid of all polling places by any means,” Klobuchar recently told The New York Times. “It’s just that the more people we can get to vote this way, the better off this is.”

FILE - Mail-in ballots for the 2016 U.S. general election are seen at the Salt Lake County Government Center, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Nov. 1, 2016.
FILE - Mail-in ballots for the 2016 U.S. general election are seen at the Salt Lake County Government Center, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Nov. 1, 2016.

A reality check

As enticing as vote-by-mail is in the era of coronavirus, even some who are supportive see hurdles – including a ticking clock and the complexity of introducing a whole new system, including security mechanisms.

Elizabeth Howard, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Project, has firsthand experience trying to hurriedly reconfigure an election system.

In August 2017, as deputy commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Elections, she had less than two months before Election Day to convert the state’s machinery after security vulnerabilities were exposed in paperless voting machines.

Howard pulled it off, but she said that switching to vote-by-mail with just seven months before the vote will be a very complex and expensive process.

“Most states have a very low percentage of votes cast with absentee mail-in ballots, and it would take a lot of work for a state like that to transition over to a system that is fully vote-by-mail,” Howard said.

“There are big equipment purchases local election officials would need,” she said. “With many more mail-in ballots, depending upon the size of your locality, you may need high speed scanners, high speed tabulation.”

Political tug of war

Still, last month the Brennan Center proposed a detailed plan to guarantee a vote-by-mail option. The estimated cost of that guarantee alone is $1.4 billion – for technology, ballot printing, postage, drop boxes, security, voter education, and ballot processing.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proposed spending $2 billion and even as much as $4 billion to make sure the November election goes off without a hitch.

Over the years, the politics of vote-by-mail have been partisan. Democrats, who tend to benefit from high turnout, support it. Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said a national vote-by-mail mandate would trample on the right of states to control their own elections.

Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation claim it's vulnerable to different kinds of fraud. In one example, North Carolina officials last year had to order a re-vote after an operative working for a Republican candidate was accused of illegally “harvesting” absentee ballots from voters, tipping a congressional primary.

States have varying rules on who can return an absentee ballot on a voter’s behalf. Vote-by-mail backers say instances of fraud are rare and the risk exaggerated.

Speaking recently on “Fox & Friends”, President Trump criticized the Democrats’ efforts to get more money for mail balloting in the recent stimulus bill, casting it as a move to gain partisan advantage.

“They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he said.

Trump slammed vote by mail again at the White House coronavirus briefing on April 3. Asked if all states should prepare for mail voting in the fall, he raised voter identification as an issue.

“I think a lot of people cheat with mail in voting. I think people should vote with ID, voter ID,” Trump said. “It should be you go to a booth and you proudly display yourself.”

Vote-by-mail advocate McReynolds noted that the president and first lady Melania Trump voted by absentee in this year’s Florida primary election.

“And maybe a lot of U.S. Senators vote-by-mail from D.C., too,” she said. "Every study that we've seen recently, having a vote-by-mail ballot benefits all voters –whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.”