The novel coronavirus is threatening to disrupt elections along with schools, events, travel, grocery shopping, and every other aspect of our lives outside the front door. Three states are proceeding with their presidential primaries tomorrow, with extra precautions for everyone's health, and Georgia and Louisiana have both postponed their primaries that were originally scheduled for later this month.
Not allowing a good crisis to go to waste, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden introduced a bill to mandate no-excuse vote-by-mail nationwide if the governors of 25% of states and territories that vote in presidential elections declare a state of emergency in response to a disease (such as COVID-19) or natural disaster within 180 days before a federal election. Governors could also trigger the no-excuse mail voting requirement for their state by declaring an emergency just within their state. States would be required to offer all voters a mail ballot, would have to receive requests for mail ballots electronically and transmit blank ballots electronically up to the day before the election, and would have to count any ballot postmarked by Election Day, regardless of when it was received.
It's no secret that Democrats and liberals want nationwide no-excuse mail voting - it was part of H.R. 1.
While mail ballots can be convenient for voters and absentee ballots help protect voters' right to vote, mail ballots also present challenges from both an election administration and an election integrity perspective. Such a dramatic expansion of mail voting would cause the high-turnout 2020 election results to be delayed by weeks, as has become the new normal for election results from California.
As Lawyers Democracy Fund (LDF) pointed out in an article on how COVID-19 will affect elections:
Pointing to the relatively slow vote-counting in Michigan after Tuesday’s Democratic primary due to an increase in mail-in voting, [former election official Tammy] Patrick added such changes could delay processing of ballots in key swing states in November.
“It shouldn’t stop the election, but it may slow things down, and it may slow down the results, which I think is important to note,” she said.
Beyond delays that could undermine public confidence in election results, some critics of vote-by-mail also argue it is less secure than in-person voting.
“If there are widespread service disruptions due to illness and quarantines, the mail may not be a reliable way for people to submit their ballots,” said Lisa Dixon, publications director for the Lawyers Democracy Fund. “Mail ballots also are an easy vehicle for election manipulation by bad actors, as the secrecy of the voting booth cannot be maintained outside a polling place.”
LDF's study of mail ballots outlines some of the challenges and vulnerabilities associated with mail ballots.
While states and election officials may need to be flexible, within the confines of the law, in responding to the threat of COVID-19, the federal government should not use it as an opportunity to seize power over election administration and impose burdens on the states.