Of all the essential public services called into doubt by the coronavirus pandemic, voting, the most basic ritual of democracy, is among the most threatened. It’s no mistake that the recent Democratic primary election held in a state (Illinois) where Election Day voting is still the predominant practice saw a big drop in turnout.
There’s no way to know when voting in person will become safe again, so logically enough a variety of voices have called for a rapid expansion of voting by mail opportunities between now and November. That won’t be easy, as I noted recently:
The obvious way to separate elections from the fear of coronavirus is to encourage remote voting — usually by mail, but “mail” ballots can also sometimes be placed in drop boxes or even picked up by intermediaries. But moving in that direction nationally is easier said than done, since many states actively discourage this mechanism, and others accept or promote it in widely varying degrees. And in case you haven’t gotten the memo, states and localities run even “federal” elections in this country, with the Constitution and the federal government regulating them around the edges. There is no “national election system,” so big changes like the one we may need this year will probably have to be enacted on a state-by-state basis.
Senator Ron Wyden (later joined by Amy Klobuchar), from all-mail-balloting Oregon, recently introduced legislation to give voting by mail a big push, as the Washington Post reported:
Sen. Ron Wyden (D) is proposing $500 million of federal funding to help states prepare for possible voting disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Wyden’s bill also would give Americans the option to vote by mail in case of a widespread emergency….
Wyden’s bill would give all Americans the right to vote by mail if 25 percent of states declared an emergency related to the coronavirus outbreak. The bill also would require state and local officials to prepare for possible coronavirus disruptions and to offer prepaid envelopes with self-sealing flaps to minimize the risk of contagion from voters’ licking envelopes.
So it’s federal money with conditional strings, and the nexus with the coronavirus crisis made it a natural candidate (among Democrats, at least) for inclusion in the giant package of stimulus under consideration in Congress. Sadly if unsurprisingly, some Republicans whose knees jerk uncontrollably at the idea of making voting easier, began denouncing election assistance as one of those non-germane socialistic schemes the Democratic Party was pursuing when they ought to be focused on rushing out checks to corporations and individuals. Some objections were beyond asinine:
Yes, there are conservatives who believe voting by mail (which is very popular in a number of Republican-governed jurisdictions like Florida and Utah) is somehow all about stuffing ballot boxes, but they mostly represent the most intensely reactionary of vote suppressors. There was just enough support for coronavirus-related election assistance among Republican as well as Democratic election administrators around the country to keep the subject in the mix during stimulus negotiations. And in the end the mostly Democratic proponents came away with half a loaf:
As Roll Call explains, that’s a lowball figure:
Ben Hovland, the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission [which will distribute the new money], said on Tuesday before the deal was announced that it is difficult to determine how much federal assistance is necessary to prepare states for November.
“From what I’ve been hearing from state and local election officials around the country, I think the number is closer to $2 billion,” he added.
House Democrats had actually provided $4 billion for this purpose in their own mostly symbolic stimulus proposal. Just as importantly, they picked up on Wyden’s proposal to mandate universal access to voting by mail (not the same as universal voting by mail, but simply the opportunity to do so without lots of extraneous requirements). The mandate was dropped in the final bill.
We’ll have to see the exact final language and how the Election Assistance Commission (a little-known bipartisan entity created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, itself the product of controversy stemming from the 2000 election nightmare) chooses to distribute the money. But without the mandate for mailing ballots to all registered voters (which they can choose to disregard in order to vote in person) Wyden and Pelosi wanted, it’s likely the feds will subsidize less ambitious measures like the one just undertaken by Georgia, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:
All of Georgia’s 6.9 million active voters will be mailed absentee ballot request forms for the May 19 primary, a major push to encourage voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Tuesday….
Voters will still be required to return their absentee ballot request forms before they receive an actual ballot.
One can only hope that in implementing the new federal program and considering what steps to take at the state level on their own, Republicans can stop their knees from jerking and comprehend that the voters most likely to stay home in November if COVID-19 persists are seniors whose voting habits tilt GOP. Both parties have a tangible stake in ensuring that the high-stakes election of 2020 doesn’t take place with low voter turnout.