Elec­tion of­fi­cials, in bi­par­ti­san push, seek funds for mail vot­ing

The Washington Post - - THE CORONAVIRU­S OUTBREAK - BY AMY GARD­NER, ELISE VIEBECK AND JOSEPH MARKS amy.gard­[email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com

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 re­luc­tance 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 along with 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-tex.) tweeted Mon­day.

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-by­mail 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 their pri­mary op­po­si­tion is to the man­dates that Wy­den and oth­ers want to im­pose on the states, and ar­gue that 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 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; 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 mailin bal­lot­ing. An ad­di­tional onethird 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.

Paul Pate, the Iowa secretary of state and pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Sec­re­taries of State, said he op­poses the man­dates be­ing pro­posed by Democrats, in part be­cause states vary so widely in how they ad­min­is­ter elec­tions. But he added that the states des­per­ately need the money to ex­pand vot­ing pro­grams in their own ways.

“I’m plead­ing with the feds, yes, we need fund­ing, but al­low states to de­velop plans that best fit their states,” said Pate (R). “Try­ing to tell states to take a one-size-fit­sall ap­proach is a recipe for dis­as­ter.”

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.

On Mon­day, Ge­or­gia Secretary of State Brad Raf­fensperger an­nounced that his office would send an ap­pli­ca­tion for a mail-in bal­lot to ev­ery reg­is­tered voter in the state ahead of the May 19 pri­mary. The ef­fort ap­plies only to the pri­mary for now, and in-per­son vot­ing will con­tinue to be of­fered.

“Do­ing this this quick is a big lift, but our team is up the chal­lenge,” Raf­fensperger said in an in­ter­view.

In 2016, only 5 per­cent of the elec­torate cast bal­lots by mail in the state.

“We’d like to see a real strong in­crease in that,” Raf­fensperger said.

Ge­or­gia of­fi­cials es­ti­mate the ef­fort will cost about $13 mil­lion, but did not spec­ify what that fig­ure in­cludes. It does not in­clude postage, for in­stance, a likely seven-fig­ure ex­pense. The state is plan­ning to cover the costs with un­used fed­eral funds for elec­tion se­cu­rity, of­fi­cials said.

Raf­fensperger said he isn’t push­ing for more fed­eral money at this point. “We’re grate­ful for what we do have,” he said, ad­ding: “The fed­eral govern­ment has a lot of is­sues on their plate so we’ll make do with what we have now.”

But Tina Bar­ton, city clerk of Rochester Hills, Mich., said lo­cal elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors des­per­ately need an in­fu­sion of fed­eral money to cover the costs of ex­pand­ing ab­sen­tee vot­ing — from postage 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 mailin 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.

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