In the midst of a pandemic, voting rights advocates and Democratic leaders are urging sites to switch as much as possible to voting by mail for the November election. They’re finding their efforts opposed by Pres. Trump and his Republicans allies who are launching an aggressive strategy to fight what many of the administration’s own health officials view as one of the most effective ways to make voting safer amid the deadly spread of COVID-19.
The scene last week of Wisconsin voters in masks and gloves gathering in long lines at the polls is not deterring the president or top officials in the Republican Party.
It’s a political standoff, with Trump telling Fox News, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” under Democratic plans for national expansion of early voting and voting by mail. The Democrats may point to health and safety concerns as their reason for wanting mail in voting expanded, but most voting authorities agree, Democrats stand to gain the most by expanding opportunities for people to vote.
The push to limit voting options is in keeping with the Republicans’ decades-running campaign to impose restrictions that are seen to disproportionately affect people of color, the poor, and young voters, all under the banner of combating voter fraud.
Currently, 32 states allow “no-excuse” absentee voting, where citizens either automatically receive ballots at home or can get them upon request. In the 2016 election, Trump carried 11 of the 16 states that limit absentee voting, and 11 of those 16 states have Republican governors.
In those states, only people who meet certain requirements are allowed to vote absentee. Some of the most common excuses are, you’re over age 60 or 65, you have a disability or you’ll be out of the county on Election Day and during the advance voting days.
The Republican governor of New Hampshire has endorsed the idea, saying his state would hold its election by mail in November if health risks were still an issue. The Republican secretary of state in Iowa has expressed the same idea. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in times like these, she supports voting by mail.
However with Trump, without any evidence, proclaiming “a lot of people cheat with mail-in-voting,” it will be difficult to get many more Republican governors or secretaries of state to support expanding mail-in-voting.
Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey has repeatedly said she does not favor no-excuse absentee voting. “It raises the potential for voter fraud,” Ivey said last month. “In the middle of a public health crisis, we don’t need to open that up and add another problem to our plate.”
Vote-by-mail advocates dispute claims of widespread voter fraud, noting that mail ballots rely on signature-verification tools to check voter authenticity.
Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told the Dallas Morning News he opposes mandating mail-in voting because it would infringe on the rights of people who vote at the polls. All states that mail ballots to all registered voters still allow for some form of in-person voting.
A spokeswoman for Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, said Tennessee is focused on the safety of elections officials and voters but expressed concerns about expanding vote-by-mail just months before the election. Tennessee is among the states with strict voter ID laws that require photo identification to cast ballots.
“Tennesseans are in the habit of voting in person,” spokeswoman Julia Bruck said, noting that only 2% of registered Tennessee voters typically cast absentee voters despite 30% being eligible.
Time Running Out
Voting security advocates are sounding the alarm about a shrinking window for the U.S. to prepare for a November presidential election taking place during a global pandemic and they’re calling for vote-by mail options nationwide in case citizens are still advised to avoid public places.
“We’re getting to a do-or-die moment to be able to make the changes that are necessary for a credible election in November,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law.
“Even ordering the paper, which sounds crazy, probably has to start happening at the very latest in May,” Norden said. “So, we’re talking about a matter of weeks before you’re going to get to a problem where states are going to have real difficulty meeting the demand for mail-voting changes.”
Besides time, there’s an issue of costs. Democrats are pushing for mail-in elections across the country, a move that’s expected to cost at least $2 billion. They’re pushing to get funding for the change added into the third stimulus package.
Congress approved $400 million for election in the recently passed coronavirus stimulus package, an amount that might cover the cost of postage.