In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced this bill to address the threat that COVID-19 poses to the 2020 elections:
“Some things are overlooked when emergencies occur, but responsibly participating in our democracy should not be one of them. With a crucial election season approaching, we should not be putting individuals that are highly susceptible to contracting COVID-19 in danger by forcing them to vote in person. We need to act responsibly and allow for absentee voting to keep our communities safe.”
In March 11, 2020 introductory remarks on the House floor, Rep. Blumenauer added:
“Without broad congressional action, COVID-19 has the potential to disrupt every aspect of American society, including the 2020 primary and general elections. The virus will likely impact voters who cannot leave their homes as well as those who are under mandatory or self-imposed quarantines at the recommendation of health experts. To make matters worse, the Election Assistance Commission has found that 58 percent of all poll workers in 2018 were over 60--the prime at-risk population for COVID-19… It is critical that we take a broad view of the response to COVID-19 and ensure that our elections are safe, secure, and accessible to all.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the sponsor of this bill’s Senate companion, says:
“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk. When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site. This is a nonpartisan, commonsense solution to the very real threat looming this November.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) supports a national vote by mail system to give citizens a safe way to cast their ballots while the novel coronavirus makes it dangerous to congregate. Originally, Speaker Pelosi had hoped to include vote-by-mail resources in the third economic stimulus package; however, this was not realized.
Article I of the U.S. Constitution includes the Elections Clause, which empowers states to determine the “Times, Places, and Manner” of elections for federal office. In effect, this gives states broad responsibility for administering elections, although Congress has the power to enact laws that pre-empt state policies.
President Donald Trump opposes the expansion of vote by mail. In a “Fox & Friends” interview, President Trump claimed that expansion of vote by mail would spell disaster for the Republican Party. Discussing Democrats’ ultimately unsuccessful attempts to include vote-by-mail support in the third coronavirus stimulus bill, Trump said these measures would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Center at the Heritage Foundation and a member of Trump’s now disbanded election integrity commission, says this bill is “problematic” and “not needed”:
“The bill is very problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s not needed. But I can tell you, as a former local election official, that the coronavirus is more than enough of an excuse, particularly given all the orders coming out from governors and mayors for people to stay out of public places.”
This legislation has 16 Democratic House cosponsors. Its Senate companion is sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). Neither bill has received a committee vote. Daily Kos, Protect Democracy, and OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates support this legislation.
Of Note: Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, says the COVID-19 pandemic “presents unique, novel challenges to election administrators.” She adds:
“[COVID-19] is very different from any of the election emergencies we have seen in recent years. The nation has not prepared for it. Our elections will not be perceived as fair if steps are not taken to assure that people have options for voting, no matter what happens. This is an emergency we can address, but we don’t have that much time.”
Amber McReynolds, president of the National Vote at Home Institute, points out that vote by mail is already used for military and overseas families, and could be applied to domestic voters as well.
Some evidence suggests that vote by mail could negatively impact certain populations, such as domestic abuse victims whose abusers may control their ballots and inner city, rural, and Native voters who may be poorly served by mail services. According to election experts such as Edward Foley, director of the Election Law program at the Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, vote-by-mail could also raise the chance of litigation challenging elections’ results.
Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia offer “no excuse” absentee voting by mail. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Wasington, and Utah — currently conduct all elections entirely by mail.
The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reports that 58% of all poll workers in 2018 were over 60; their age would put these workers in the prime at-risk population for COVID-19.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Thibault Renard)