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Voters wait in line outside Riverside University High School to cast ballots during the presidential primary election held amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Acker - RC2XZF9TNG3Q

‘We’ve got to get going.’ States under pressure to plan for the general election amid a pandemic

The presidential election in November is still more than six months away, but states are already under pressure to start making preparations for holding a general election during a public health crisis, including expanding vote-by-mail systems in time to handle a potential spike in absentee ballots this fall.

The primaries have offered a preview of possible problems in November, with court battles over voting rights and public health concerns over in-person voting underscoring the challenges of carrying out an election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Many states delayed primaries scheduled for this spring, but there is no serious discussion about seeking a change in the federal law to allow for the Nov. 3 general election to be moved to a later date. Barring a major unforeseen turn of events, the widespread assumption is that the presidential contest will go forward as planned.

But while the general election is more than half a year away, states considering any changes in November need to start preparing now in order to have contingency plans ready in time for the fall, according to interviews with Democratic and Republican Party leaders, current government officials, former state officials in charge of elections, and others.

“Right now is so critically important. We still have the time to implement systems for November” to expand early and absentee voting, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said in a phone interview. “But we’ve got to get going.”

Sorting out complex election logistics typically requires months of advance planning, even under the best of circumstances. Now states will have to make decisions quickly, while simultaneously dealing with the health crisis and resulting economic fallout.

“This is a great unknown. We don’t know where we’re going to be in two, three, four months,” said Raymond Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “We’re all together blindfolded going down the path to the election.”

Most of the conversations at the state level so far have focused on different options for reducing in-person voting on Election Day, to avoid having crowded polling places where voters and poll workers can spread the virus. Steps under consideration include expanding mail-in voting, as well as expanding early voting periods so that those who choose to vote in person interact with fewer people at the polls.

The debate has intensified in the weeks after Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, which highlighted the risks of in-person voting as well as the potential for a surge in absentee balloting this year.

At least 19 voters or poll workers in Wisconsin who participated in person in Election Day-related activities during the state’s primary have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report this week by ABC News. State officials said it was possible some of the new cases were not directly linked to the election. The number of potential new cases was a fraction of the overall turnout, but it raised the specter that cases could jump nationwide if millions of Americans go to the polls in November.

Election volunteer Nancy Gavney verifies voter and witness signatures on absentee ballots as they are counted at the City Hall during the presidential primary election held amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beloit, Wisconsin, U.S. April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Acker TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Election volunteer Nancy Gavney verifies voter and witness signatures on absentee ballots as they are counted at the City Hall during the presidential primary election in Beloit, Wisconsin, on April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Acker

The state has not yet certified the results from the primary, but according to the initial vote count more than 900,000 voters cast ballots in the presidential primary, and more than 1.5 million voted in the election to fill a state Supreme Court seat.

Overall, 1.1 million people voted by absentee ballot, shattering the state’s previous record and suggesting that many voters are willing to make adjustments in order to participate in an election during the pandemic.

Yet for many states, changing gears in a presidential election year won’t be so easy. More than 20 states and U.S. territories still have to hold primaries before they can focus their full attention on preparing for November. The coronavirus pandemic scrambled the primary cycle and put on hold the general election matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, now the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee.

Still, getting an early start on planning for the general election now will help avoid issues in November, said Audrey Kline, the national policy director of the advocacy group Vote at Home. “States need to understand the urgency of the issue,” Kline said. “These larger infrastructure and policy decisions need to be made now.”

Currently, registered voters in 29 states can receive an absentee ballot by mail upon request, without providing a reason why they can’t vote in person. An additional 5 states — Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah — hold what are commonly known as “all-mail” elections. In those states, registered voters automatically receive a ballot by mail, and can return it by mail or vote early in person ahead of Election Day.

But 16 states still require voters to show they meet certain criteria in order to vote by mail with an absentee ballot. The criteria vary by state, but often include things like being over the age of 65, having a disability, or plans to be out of the country on Election Day.

For those states in particular, expanding mail-in voting on short notice could prove difficult. And any state that is considering expanding its absentee ballot program would likely need to make a final decision by the end of the summer, at the latest, in order to give private vendors enough time to ramp up production of critical elections-related material and equipment such as the special paper and envelopes used for absentee ballots, and the scanning machines that count the votes.

Some companies have informed the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent government agency, that they would need several months in the run-up to November to meet the added demand for supplies, said Benjamin Hovland, the commission’s chairman.

“We heard from some of the vendor community that they need three to four months’ notice to significantly increase” capacity, said Hovland, who was appointed by Trump.

How states and local governments pay for the additional costs associated with changes in the general election is another major hurdle. The costs and challenges will include creating safe conditions at polling sites, and finding people willing to serve as poll workers on Election Day, Hovland said.

“You’re going to have more mail-in ballots than ever before, but you’re still going to need polling places,” he said. Sanitizing the polling sites and providing personal protective equipment for workers “were not built into the initial budget estimates for local officials to conduct the 2020 election.”

U.S. President Donald Trump signs the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act financial response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. April 24, 2020.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Donald Trump signs the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act financial response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on April 24, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package that Trump signed into law last month included $400 million in election funding for states. But a new aid package signed by Trump on Friday did not provide additional resources for elections.

Perez said states will need an additional $2 billion. Other Democrats are also pushing for more funding for the general election, arguing that Congress should pitch in to help states and local governments that are struggling from the economic impact of the crisis and can’t afford to cover the extra election costs on their own.

Some Republicans at the state level have joined Democrats in calling for more election funding, which could build pressure on the House and Senate to act. But there is widespread opposition to expanded mail-in voting within the Republican Party, including from Trump, and even if Congress acts there is no guarantee that will change before November.

Earlier this month, the president called mail-in voting “corrupt,” though he voted by mail in March in the Florida primary. Other Republicans have echoed Trump’s claims that mail-in voting leads to higher instances of voter fraud, though there is little evidence to support the claim.

The voter fraud commission that Trump established to investigate the results of the 2016 election found “no real evidence” of widespread fraud, according to a report on its findings released in 2018.

Kris Kobach, who led the commission along with Vice President Mike Pence and who is now running for a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas, said in a phone interview that he believes cases of voter fraud would increase if states were to expand mail-in voting in November.

“I think you would see an increase in fraud, the question is just how much it would be,” said Kobach, who enacted a voter ID law and other stringent voting measures when he served as secretary of state in Kansas from 2011 to 2019.

Other critics argued that states should not consider expanding mail-in voting without updating their voter rolls and putting other security measures in place to ensure that absentee ballots are sent to the right addresses and can’t be tampered with.

“We know that the voter rolls are a mess. So if you’re doing automatic mail [ballots], nobody could credibly argue that that’s a sound policy,” said J. Christian Adams, the general counsel for the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation.

Adams cited a study by the group, based on data from the Election Assistance Commission, which found that 28.3 million ballots in federal elections between 2012 and 2018 were lost or disappeared in the mail.

Some advocacy groups and news outlets have disputed the study. The National Vote at Home Institute found that of the 28.3 million votes cited in the study, a significant portion — including 12 million alone in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — were mailed out but not returned. Counting unreturned ballots as “missing” is misleading, the group and others have argued.

Eliza Luna, a ballot designer with the Maricopa County Elections Department, counts ballots for the Arizona Presidential Preference Election at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., March 17, 2020.  REUTERS/Cheney Orr - RC2ZLF9MH5QR

Eliza Luna, a ballot designer with the Maricopa County Elections Department, counts ballots for the Arizona presidential primary at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Cheney Orr

Voting rights advocates acknowledged that states need some basic safeguards to make sure mail-in voting systems can’t be exploited. Kline, of the group Vote at Home, pointed to Colorado, a “mail-in” state that has a tracking system in place for absentee ballots.

“It’s important to point out that there is tension between equity and security on these issues,” Kline said. Still, she said, it’s clear that voter fraud “is not a real threat for our democracy.”

Democrats dismissed Republican concern over fraud as a thinly veiled attempt to suppress turnout. “What Republicans like Trump really want is they want less people to vote. They believe Republicans do better when they suppress the vote, especially in communities of color,” said Perez, the DNC chair.

The fight over access to turnout took center stage in the Wisconsin election. Democrats pushed for an all-mail election, but the plan was rejected by the Republican-controlled state legislature. In the week before the primary, Republicans also appealed a lower court ruling that extended the deadline for sending in absentee ballots, arguing that the rules of the election should not be changed at the 11th hour.

In a pair of decisions the day before the election, the state’s highest court and the U.S. Supreme Court — which both have conservative majorities — sided with the GOP, leaving Wisconsin with no choice but to go forward with the primary as planned.

Some states have already taken steps to expand mail-in voting for the primaries. But legal battles have cropped up in Texas, Nevada, Georgia and Florida, among other states, where voting rights groups are suing to expand voting access with an eye toward the fall election.

The number of lawsuits could grow if Republicans take more steps aimed at suppressing turnout, said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “If they’re adding another hoop to jump through, that’s something that would be litigated,” Pepper said.

The Democratic National Committee has taken an active role in some of the litigation, and also has voter protection staff working closely with state Democratic organizations in 17 states to prepare for the primaries and general election. The DNC dispatched voter protection officials to some states, including Georgia, Michigan and Florida, as early as the spring of 2019, as part of a push to fight voter suppression efforts that predated the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s never happened this early in a cycle before,” said Reyna Walters-Morgan, the DNC’s director of voter protection. The early focus on voter protection has only grown more critical because in the current crisis, she said.

Voters wearing protective masks, due the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walk past election official Brianna Peterson after voting in the municipal and presidential primary elections at their polling center in St. Petersburg, Florida March 17, 2020.  REUTERS/Steve Nesius - RC2XLF9LKISR

Voters wearing protective masks, due the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at their polling center in St. Petersburg, Florida March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

Launching legal challenges early in the year will help ensure the courts have enough time to resolve disputes before November, she added, and avoid the confusing last-minute legal fight that played out in Wisconsin and Ohio, where the governor overruled a court order to delay the state’s primary.

“The chaos and confusion that we saw around the last minute decisions that were made in Ohio and Wisconsin, [those] are not things that you ever want to see” in a general election, Walters-Morgan said.

The court cases so far have centered on battleground states like Florida that will help decide the 2020 presidential race. But the legal battles have as much to do with protecting public health as they do with the political process, said Andrea Cristina Mercado, the executive director of The New Florida Majority, a group that joined a lawsuit in Florida seeking expanded voting access in the fall.

Without more mail-in options, “the worst-case scenario is that people put their lives at risk to go vote, and we have a spike in coronavirus cases and people die,” Mercado said.

The decisions made by state elections officials in the next few months will be critical in shaping the November election, said Ken Blackwell, a Republican who served as secretary of state in Ohio. “They’ll have to live by those decisions, and the integrity of elections on a state by state basis will turn on the decisions that they make.”

Whatever they decide, states will take different approaches, Blackwell said. “We don’t have one national election. We have 50 elections on national election day,” he said.

And with increased mail-in voting a likely scenario in many parts of the country, voters should prepare for what could be an unusual Election Day, he added — including the possibility that it may take states with tight races additional time to count the extra absentee ballots.

“There are probably going to be five to seven states where the results are within the margin of litigation,” he said. “We might as well brace ourselves, if it’s that close again, for hours, days, maybe weeks of litigation.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional details about the Election Assistance Commission study.

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