As the battle against the new coronavirus rages through April and beyond, a looming question for public officials and political practitioners is what happens to the remaining primaries and what’s the impact on November’s general election?
Primaries, it’s been demonstrated, can be rescheduled. But the idea of a general election delay? Unthinkable for the vast majority of political professionals and constitutional scholars.
The consensus on a delay to the general election, which has taken place the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (even in the middle of the Civil War) is that shifting it would be far too difficult and require both the House and Senate to rewrite existing federal law.
As political consultants scramble to rewrite fundraising programs, adjust advertising plans, and more generally cope with the new realities of the moment there’s a growing chorus of practitioners pushing for states to expand vote-by-mail programs with an eye toward November. Given the possibility that a second wave of the virus could hit this fall, the prospect of voters too worried to cast a ballot in person is the greatest long-term worry for many campaigns.
“It was the Ohio cancelation of the election just a few weeks ago that really sent shock waves through those of us who study voting,” said Matt Barreto, a pollster who co-founded the UCLA Voting Rights Project, which recently released recommendations for officials on how to implement vote-by-mail programs before November.
“Now is a critical time,” said Barreto, who co-founded the polling shop Latino Decisions. “This is the sort of thing our country should have been preparing for for a long time, not just because of emergencies but because it’s good for democracy.”
It can also save taxpayer money, with one study saying its 40 percent cheaper than tradition in-person voting.
Barreto was in talks with the Democratic House leadership right up until the March 27 passage of the CARES Act. The bill contains some $400 million to help state election officials prepare for the November election. But the most expensive relief legislation in U.S. history has its critics, including Mark Dimondstein.
The American Postal Workers Union president said it was “outrageous” the bill “doesn’t include any financial support for the USPS, including needed funds to provide for the safety of workers and the mailing public.”
Dimondstein noted the failure to “spare a dime” comes at a time when USPS’s “important role continues to grow as our elections move to vote-by-mail.”
While vote-by-mail funding didn’t make it into that legislation, Barreto is confident that “a more robust specific bill that will allow/require vote-by-mail” will pass soon.
“I think you’re starting to see more bipartisan consensus that we can’t risk a break down of the November election and we have to be prepared,” he told C&E. “We cannot leave it up to 50 different states to come up with 50 different strategies.”
On the Senate side, Amy Klobuchar has teamed up with Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to introduce the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020. That bill would expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states. It would also allow those who didn’t get an absentee ballot to use a ballot that’s currently only provided to active duty military and voters overseas.
While a federal program might appear straightforward enough on paper, where it gets complicated is in the implementation by local officials. Consider Wisconsin, where 2,000 local election officials administer elections at the municipality level.
The scale of the challenge leaves longtime advocates in the space warning that wholesale expansion of such programs would be challenging in just a few short months.
“I think it sets up states for failure,” said Debra Cleaver, founder of Turnout2020, a nonprofit group that runs voter registration, turnout and protection programs. “It will be challenging — I’m not going to say impossible — to change the way most Americans vote over the next [216 days].”
Cleaver noted that vote by mail in Oregon, one of five states to administer all its elections that way, was originally a response to a health crisis. A religious sect led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh tried to take over Wasco County, east of Portland, partly through suppressing voter turn out “by poisoning thousands of residents with Salmonella.”
The episode was chronicled in the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country.” In 1987, three years after that incident, vote by mail was made permanent in Oregon with a majority of counties using it for local/special elections.
“Vote by mail was originally a response to a health crisis, so I think a health crisis does give us a strong reason to [assess] whether our vote systems match how Americans live now,” said Cleaver, who previously founded the organization that grew into the participation and ballot access advocacy group Vote.org
Still, funding and time are obstacles too big to overcome, according to Cleaver. She would settle for the 17 states who require an excuse or disability to vote absentee or by mail to eliminate that barrier.
“At this point, there should be no reason to require an excuse to vote by mail. If you want to vote by mail, you should be able to,” she said.
From a practitioner’s perspective, the universal adoption of vote-by-mail could improve voter contact efforts. That’s because the voter files in states like Oregon are extremely clean.
Still, local officials say that other barriers exist. Start with staffing. In Tennessee, Tammy Smith, the assistant administrator of elections for Wilson County, notes elections officials there can’t even touch the ballots until the morning of the election. “If we can’t get high-speed scanners, do we need a dozen or more people to be counting?” she asked during a recent webinar hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“For us, going to a mostly by mail [program], it would be a tremendous jump,” added Smith. “We do very little absentee compared to states that have no-excuse absentee … The cost is a big issue for us. We’ve already been hit with cybersecurity on a local jurisdiction level.”
Meanwhile, Stephen Trout, Oregon’s Director of Elections, warned that verifying signatures was a challenge when setting up a program.
“How are you going to authenticate those voters if the signature doesn’t match?” he asked during the webinar. He also warned of legal challenges: “Any time you’re changing laws in the middle of a major election that is just fuel for lawsuits if the result is close.”
In fact, lawsuits are already underway.
UCLA Voting Rights Project Co-Founder Chad Dunn, a voting rights attorney in Texas, is currently suing the state on behalf of the Democratic Party to remove the excuse needed to vote by mail.
Texas already has some version of vote by mail, but the rules are you have to be over 65. If you’re under, you have to have a disability or injury that makes you concerned about voting in person. Should the coronavirus pandemic change that criteria?
“We’ll see what state courts have to say about that,” Dunn said. “If that lawsuit prevails, people will be able to request a ballot that way.”
Meanwhile, he urged campaigns to start preparing for expanded vote by mail this cycle.
“You need to start focusing on how can you identify your mail voters and how can you message with them and encourage them to go through the steps,” he said. “You’ll need to navigate that from the jurisdiction where you run your campaign.”