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Mail-in voting amid pandemic and protests previews challenges for November election

Five minutes before polls closed in Washington, D.C., and 55 minutes after the city’s curfew went into effect, James Harnett arrived at his polling place a mile from where hundreds of protesters stood outside the White House.

Harnett estimated nearly 100 voters were in line, trying to stand six feet apart, when police in two cruisers patrolling the streets told voters over megaphone that they were violating the curfew and had to go home.

Harnett said another police officer assigned to the polling location “frantically ran around telling people they could stay in line.”  

The ongoing pandemic combined with protests made for the perfect storm for election mishaps, said Harnett, who serves on local government. “Many predicted this is something that would happen.”

The curfew put “black Americans and people of color at greater risk,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director for voting rights group Let America Vote. 

“No curfew should interfere with an American trying to exercise their right to vote,” he added.

The District of Columbia, like other localities trying to adjust to the pandemic, encouraged voters in the months leading up to this election to request absentee ballots in order to avoid polling places where they would risk exposure to COVID-19. In all, the D.C. Board of Elections received requests for 90,000 absentee ballots. As of Wednesday afternoon they said more than 50,000 had been returned.

Still, just more than 33,000 residents voted in person at one of the city’s 20 polling centers — usually there are more than 100 — amid confusion about curfews that went into effect earlier than polls were scheduled to close.

It was one illustration of many across the country showing some of the challenges of handling more mail-in voting as localities prepare for November’s elections. 

While many cities and states are offering more ways to vote, or offering new kinds of locations, their budgets have not increased, leaving questions about how state and local governments will bear the costs involved in accommodating more mail balloting — from paying additional staff to physically printing thousands more ballots. They are also facing opposition to expanding voting by mail from President Donald Trump and other prominent Republican lawmakers arguing, without evidence, that the process opens up elections to fraud.

“By and large, our election officials have been trying and they’ve had some significant obstacles, and the principal obstacle that they have are resources,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center. “They planned for a completely different election than the one that they’re going to have,” Weiser said Tuesday.

According to Weiser, election officials nationwide lack the resources to effectively conduct an election in which a significant number of voters mail in their ballots.

Some Indiana households only received one ballot when multiple residents had requested them. In Maryland every registered voter was supposed to receive a mail-in ballot, but for nearly a million voters in two of the state’s most populous counties — Montgomery County and Baltimore County — those ballots were late or never arrived.

The Brennan Center estimates that updating the country’s elections systems to conduct a “safe and secure” election in November could cost $2 billion, and has urged Congress to appropriate the money.

“[Election officials] don’t have the equipment to process the requests. They haven’t printed enough of those mail ballots,” Weiser said. “They don’t have the resources to tabulate the ballots, they need high-speed scanners, envelope openers.”

Pennsylvania voter Bilal Aksoy said he requested an absentee ballot back in March to be sent to his dorm at American University in Washington. But he was forced to return home to Pennsylvania when school closed early due to COVID-19 and never received the ballot. He then tried to request a mail-in ballot, but was denied because he had already requested an absentee ballot.

Aksoy voted in person Tuesday, but said that, in the future, “everyone should automatically get a mail-in ballot. It doesn’t matter if you vote all the time, never voted, whatever — as long as you’re registered.”

Voting rights activists are hoping setbacks now will become lessons learned and lead to solutions later.

“I am trying to see today as an opportunity to show the cracks in the system that we can fix before November,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for voting rights group Common Cause.

Albert said there is concern that in the November election, people who request absentee ballots will not receive them, and there will be fewer polling places as counties consolidate them in response to the pandemic.

“There needs to be a rational level of consolidation that ensures that communities who especially have not used vote by mail in the past or cannot use vote by mail — such as disabled communities or people without addresses, homeless, transient — that there are enough polling locations to serve those people,” Albert said.

There have been signs access to ballots could increase overall turnout, like in Iowa, which had a record-breaking primary on Tuesday after Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate mailed all registered voters an absentee ballot request form.

Pate tweeted Tuesday night that “more than 487,000 ballots” had been cast in the primary for Congressional and State Assembly seats, including more than 410,000 by mail. In the 2016 primary, only 38,000 Iowans mailed in their ballots. 

According to Albert, mailing ballot requests to voters is one possible solution to encourage turnout, but to do that states will need the funding as “elections officials do not have the staff and infrastructure to deal with the number of requests coming in.”

“That’s something that we can prepare for,” she said. “We can create online absentee request portals. We can hire more staff. We can purchase machines to stuff ballots and send them out. These are things that we can do to prepare if we have the resources to do so.”

Back in Washington, Harnett says he is committed to making sure what happened during the primary does not repeat in November.

“I understand and appreciate we’re in an unprecedented time, but decisions need to be made so that we’re able to hold that election.”