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Coronavirus driving partisan debate over mail-in voting

A voter drops his ballot into a collection

A voter drops his ballot into a collection box outside the Douglas County Election Commission office in Omaha, Neb., Friday, April 10. Credit: AP/Nati Harnik

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has revived a push by Congressional Democrats and voting rights groups to expand mail-in-voting ahead of November’s general election, but the proposal has faced push back from President Donald Trump and Republicans as lawmakers begin to negotiate the next sweeping federal relief package.

Democrats, citing concerns about a possible resurgence of the virus in the fall, have been calling for nearly $2 billion in election funding to states, largely to aid in the expansion of postal voting ahead of the presidential election. But Republicans leaders have so-far opposed plans to expand mail-in-voting and early in-person voting, echoing claims made this month by Trump that the submission of absentee ballots could lead to fraud.

Voting rights advocacy groups have pushed back on claims that voting-by-mail would be rife with fraud, noting that five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — currently hold elections entirely by mail, and have implemented safeguards that could be modeled to ensure the integrity of the election. As part of their push for increased funding, Senate Democrats are proposing that the states that do not already use ballot tracking systems on their absentee ballots use envelopes in 2020 featuring an “Intelligent Mail bar code” that allows voters to track their ballot and ensure it was tallied.

Trump, who acknowledged to reporters at a recent White House press briefing that he requested an absentee ballot to vote-by-mail in Florida’s March 17 primary election and voted absentee in the 2018 midterms, said he was distrustful of the method.

"Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they’re cheaters," Trump said. "The mail ballots are corrupt, in my opinion."

Speaking to Fox News earlier this month, Trump claimed with mail-in-voting," You'd never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Despite Trump’s claim, a recent study of election data by researchers at Stanford University found that while mail-in-voting does slightly drive-up overall voter turnout, it does not impact either party’s share of turnout and “does not have meaningful partisan effects on election outcomes."

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“If you pool a bunch of studies together, you glean that vote-by-mail does seem to increase turnout,” said Anthony Fowler, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, whose research focuses on elections.” It's not a huge effect in normal times. It’s one, two or three percentage points that turnout increases … If you had to guess, of course, the effects of mail voting now would be much greater than in normal times because people are reluctant to go to the polls when we're in an era of social distancing.”

The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress last month includes $400 million to provide states with election grants to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus,” but election rights groups say that money is substantially less than what’s needed to ensure states can prepare their voting systems to meet increased demands for absentee ballots and to ensure that in-person elections meet federal social distancing guidelines.

A report by the Election Reform Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, estimated that between $1.5 billion and $2 billion was needed to ensure Americans would be able to vote in the general election.

“Election officials are facing unprecedented challenges this year, and they need more resources from Congress to help keep elections safe, accessible, and secure amid the pandemic,” Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said in a recent conference call with reporters.

A proposal sponsored by former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) calls for $1.6 billion to help states ramp up early in-person voting and mail-in voting ahead of November.

“Americans shouldn’t have to choose between their health and casting a ballot. And it is wrong to shortchange our election officials as we provide relief to address the effects of this global pandemic,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “So as Congress prepares to provide additional relief to the country, I am committed to getting election officials the resources they need and expanding opportunities for Americans to safely cast a ballot. No matter the severity of the threat facing our country, the most fundamental part of our democracy — our elections — must go on.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) supported the inclusion of $400 million for election aid in the latest stimulus bill, but it’s unclear if he’ll support Democrats’ demands for additional aid in the next phase of stimulus spending that’s being negotiated. McConnell has repeatedly told reporters this month it’s premature to discuss whether additional election aid will be included in the next relief package.

While there is a partisan split on the issue in Congress, on the state level there has been bipartisan support for increased vote-by-mail and early voting options.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, in a joint CNN op-ed published last month called on Congress to appropriate more money to safeguard the upcoming presidential election, saying “states need billions, not millions, to ensure secure voting.”

“Not all states have the resources to adapt to an environment that discourages social contact,” wrote the officials. “As such, they need significant funding to help them successfully and safely conduct elections.”

Hobbs and Wyman said the effort “does not have to be partisan,” adding that “in order to make voting widely accessible, especially in the middle of this national emergency, it is imperative that all states have the flexibility to mail ballots to every eligible voter — wherever they may be taking shelter.”

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved the state’s April 28 primary to June 23, and announced all voters could request absentee ballots, lifting previous restrictions that limited mail-in-ballots to voters who were sick, disabled or out-of-town during the election. Cuomo has not yet indicated plans for November’s election.

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