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State election officials scramble to 'not become Wisconsin' amid coronavirus fears

Posted April 13, 2020 11:42 a.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump has drawn a line in the sand, opposing efforts to expand mail-in voting across the country in response to the threat of the novel coronavirus. But state election officials -- including many Republicans -- are already preparing to make stark changes to voting procedures anyway, in some cases dramatically expanding the availability of voting by mail amid the threat of Covid-19.

Their objective is simple: avoid the chaos and confusion that unfolded in Wisconsin last week by radically changing the way many Americans vote.

"I want to try to avoid circumstance of long waits and poll workers in hazmat suits. I want to relieve some of the pressure on the poll workers," said Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican. "The solution is to expand absentee voting."

Trump's false claims that mail ballots are "very dangerous" and "fraudulent in many cases" have not stopped efforts, even in red states, to expand access to mail-in voting.

Adams said that within the next two weeks, he plans to propose to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear a plan that would expand mail-in absentee voting access to any eligible voter in the state for Kentucky's upcoming presidential primary on June 23 because of the coronavirus. That plan, he said, is one that could potentially be expanded to the November presidential election.

"My goal is to avoid large congregations of voters at the polls," Adams said.

In states like Kentucky, which has a Democratic governor and a Republican secretary of state, the reality of the coronavirus pandemic has forced both sides to agree that, in advance of the primary elections, temporarily expanding absentee voting by mail is the best option to keep voters safe.

Five states already have all mail-in voting. And in dozens more have some version of no-excuse absentee voting or early voting-by-mail in some or all of their elections. As recently as Sunday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed into law a suite of electoral changes that eliminated voter ID requirements and allowed a longer period of early voting without an excuse.

"When you can really run up the numbers on people voting by mail or voting early, we can minimize the lines and the crowds on Election Day," California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said last week during a panel discussion on election changes sponsored by the progressive group the Center for American Progress. "Just look at Wisconsin and the scenes at Wisconsin's polling places -- that could have been avoided."

Even Republican officials acknowledge that for upcoming elections -- in some cases, presidential primary elections that have been delayed due to the virus -- more voters need to be permitted to vote by mail to avoid turning polling sites into petri dishes for viral transmission.

"I think that mail-in voting has been around in Georgia and I believe that that's an issue I guess on the political side of things, my job is to run clear, fair and accurate elections and we want to make sure that that's what happens when we run elections in Georgia," Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told CNN.

Raffensperger, a Republican, moved to mail absentee ballot applications to eligible Georgia voters ahead of the state's presidential primary that has been rescheduled to June 9.

"We wanted to have everyone aware that there's the absentee, no excuse absentee voting that we have in Georgia," Raffensperger said. "And we've had that since 2005. We wanted to get that information out to voter and show them here's a way you can vote from the safety and security of your home."

A debate over federal standards

The debate over whether to put in place federal guidelines for election changes this November is also sharply dividing Washington.

Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pledged to push for those changes to ensure that voting can continue unfettered even when Americans are being asked to avoid crowded spaces like polling places. They are seeking some $2 billion to help fund the changes at the state level in upcoming stimulus legislation.

Legislation introduced in the Senate by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, would mandate that states draft up contingency plans for November's election, including expanding access to absentee voting for all eligible voters. The proposal earned the support of former first lady Michelle Obama and her nonpartisan organization When We All Vote.

While Democrats pushing for those additional federal funds in future coronavirus aid bills, these state officials say they simply cannot wait.

"We're making our own preparations to make sure that our state laws are in line with what we need to do in the fall," said Debra O'Malley, spokeswoman for Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat.

Even now, election officials are already feeling the crunch.

Many have already postponed their presidential primary elections and are racing against the clock to roll out new changes to election procedures and laws in time for new primary dates. Others face the prospect of municipal and special elections, all of which are likely to be dry runs for the November presidential election at a time when health experts say the virus could potentially make a resurgence.

"You mean, how do we not become Wisconsin?" asked Missouri Secretary State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, when asked how his state plans to prepare for the upcoming general election. "It could be kind of a double-whammy coming back for the November elections."

Ashcroft said he does not have the authority to change Missouri's election laws to expand absentee voting, so instead he is treating the state's upcoming municipal elections on June 2 as a logistical challenge for how the state can safely promote social distancing at polling sites, protect poll workers and voters and expand physical locations for voting in the state.

The state has ordered a stockpile of more than 17,000 masks as well as hand sanitizer and disinfectant supplies. They are considering one-time-use-only pens and studying where to purchase ballot drop boxes to aid with an influx of voters choosing to cast absentee ballots and in an effort to speed up ballot collection. Ashcroft is preparing to retrofit polling places with social distancing guidelines and officials are considering drive-through voting locations to offer voters more options.

Patchwork of rules

Interviews with secretaries of state across the country also reveal the challenge that federal lawmakers will face if they attempt to put in place new regulations aimed at streamlining voting procedures this fall in light of the virus.

Each state is governed by a patchwork of election laws that have long been the subject of fierce debate and litigation among voting rights activists and partisans on both sides of the aisle.

"As much as we believe that the states are laboratories of democracy ... the federal government cannot abdicate its unique responsibility here to set the bar for what every voter should have come November and to back that up with effective and sufficient funding," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, during the Center for American Progress panel.

But beyond the ideological battles playing out among activists and politicians in Washington, the states are facing a massive logistical crunch.

In Massachusetts, where elections are run at the town and county level, state officials have limited options to dramatically change voting procedures. The state already has early voting in person and by mail for its presidential elections, but officials are now considering expanding the early voting period even further, O'Malley said.

Postage costs for a massive wave of mail in voters could be crippling for small towns. And the state is exploring the potential need to purchase new high speed tabulators to process mail ballots more quickly.

But with potentially more people than ever choosing to mail ballots, there are already signs that the postal system could become overwhelmed.

Wisconsin's senators, Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin, sent a letter to the inspector general of the US Postal Service last week calling for an investigation into reports that absentee ballots were never delivered to voters ahead of the state's primary.

And in Massachusetts, officials worry that an influx of mailed-in votes could mean that the results of the election in their state might not be known for days.

"If it is looking like for November that we have more than half of our voters to vote by mail, it may not be feasible to finish our counting by election night," O'Malley said.

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