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With just six months until November's presidential election, states across the U.S. are trying to determine how to safely collect and count ballots during a national health emergency. And while there is a patchwork of coronavirus election plans, dozens of states allow mail-in ballots or absentee voting. But some states are more restrictive than others. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.
With just six months until November's presidential election, states across the country are trying to determine how they will safely collect and count ballots during a national health emergency. For many states, that means reevaluating in person versus absentee voting.
Just yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the entire state would be asked to vote by mail in the November election. But for states like Connecticut, with a long history of in person voting, the push to vote by mail remains a complicated task. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.
The scenes from Wisconsin's recent election, did not sit well with Connecticut's Secretary of state Denise Merrill.
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill: That, as a matter of fact, was a turning point in my discussions with both the legislative leadership and the governor. Nobody wants to look like Milwaukee, frankly, and that that can happen pretty easily.
After Democratic Governor Tony Evers executive order that delayed the state's election by two months was overturned by the Supreme Court, Wisconsin voters had to go to polling places if they wanted to cast a ballot. Fifty-two people who worked the polls or voted on April 7 have tested positive for Covid-19, a situation Merrill does want to duplicate in her state.
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill: People are just waking up to the fact that they may be asked to vote either in a primary or particularly in the general election and jeopardize their health And I think the Milwaukee situation really galvanized people because it was all over television and people were home watching it.
But, hoping to minimize in-person voting in Connecticut will not be an easy task. With voting laws dating back to the state's 1818 constitution, the rules to vote absentee or by mail in the state nicknamed the Constitution state are restrictive. Each voter has to apply for an absentee ballot, which they will receive only if they meet one of six predetermined excuses – including military service or illness. According to Secretary Merrill, only 5 to 8 percent of Connecticut voters vote by mail, the rest do it in person.
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill: We would have to change almost everything about what we do in order to get a vote by mail system. This issue of health has really never come up before. But it does point to the weaknesses in our inability to be flexible about these things.
I expect to see similar things in a lot of these East Coast states that have not built systems that are prepared for this.
Audrey Kline is the national policy director for Vote At Home, a non-partisan organization based in Colorado that advocates for expanded absentee voting.
What are states doing to address voting in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
It depends on where you are living . Your voting experience varies when you cross a state line. We were telling states that they needed to make large structural or infrastructure type decisions two weeks ago. So, you know, we're going to start seeing places that maybe want to go full vote by mail. Maybe, maybe they will be able to.
And this is why there is such a patchwork of coronavirus election plans. Nevada just decided it would mail ballots to each voter, while states like Michigan recently eliminated its excuse criteria – making everyone eligible to vote by mail.
What does that do for voter turnout? Are you able to see a correlation to increased turnout based on the increased percentage of people voting by mail?
Yes, absolutely. It's it's pretty clear from the data that not only does it up turnout in big elections, but you actually see a larger increase when you get down into down ballot races or off year elections
Kline says this is no more evident than in Colorado, one of 5 states in the country that automatically mails each registered voter a ballot – where she says, 95% of voters, either mail their vote in or drop it off in a ballot box. And Colorado might be onto something. Outside the state, vote by mail continues to gain national support. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found 70 percent of respondents favor allowing any voter to vote by mail if they want to. So then what is holding up an expansion of the absentee system in Connecticut?
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill: There's a big appetite in the public. I think it's the legislators who are not so anxious to change things.
Representative Themis Klarides:
We are facing an almost billion dollar deficit in June. Right now is not the time to rock the boat in a huge way.
Themis Klarides the Republican Minority Leader in Connecticut's House of Representatives – says she has a number of worries about expanding access to absentee ballots.
Voter fraud has been a huge issue in Connecticut, particularly in our cities. So that's something that has to be looked at in our towns and cities already have a difficult time handling the votes we are getting. When you have absentee ballots, people have to check to see if their credentials are proper. I mean, these are a lot of things going on that we're expecting volunteers to handle. So we have to be cautious.
Voter fraud is a major talking point for those against expanding vote by mail. On April 8th President Trump tweeted that "Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn't work out well for Republicans."
Voter fraud comes up quite often. Have you seen rampant voter fraud in Connecticut?
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill: Absolutely not. For people to complain about absentee ballot fraud in Connecticut is really kind of ridiculous because we have so many processes in place. First you have to mail the application to people. They have to fill it out, mail it back to the clerk. The clerk then mails the ballot to the person which is in a double envelope. You have to put it in an inside envelope and then in an outside envelope to protect their anonymity and then you mail it back to the clerk. And during all this process, the clerk has to note every step of the way in our electronic voter registry.
The secretary of state says there's little evidence that there is widespread voter fraud in Connecticut. Can you point to specific instances of voter fraud in Connecticut?
I don't I don't have them on me, but deal with these every year we end up having a lot of kind of quirky election issues that I don't particularly find coincidental, but it's something we need to address.
The critics of vote-by-mail often cite voter fraud. Is there evidence that when you increase the access to early voting or vote by mail fraud increases?
There's no evidence whatsoever.
Nowhere. It does not exist.
On Monday, Secretary Merrill released her plan to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter – But this still does not mean every Connecticut voter can vote by mail – unless the Governor intervenes, they will still have to qualify under 1 of the 6 excuses.
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill: The only thing we can do right now, because the legislature is not in session, would be an executive order from the governor, which is what I have asked him to look at.
that should be a discussion in full session, that can't be an executive order. That can't be the secretary of state doing it on her own.
Any indication that the governor will indeed issue an executive order?
Not at this point, and where we've been very clear, in fact, 10 minutes before I got out with you, we were very clear with the governor's legal counsel that that is not something any of us are supportive of at this point.
So if he does issue an executive order, there'll be resistance.
There will be a situation, yes.
This week, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill laid out her proposal for safe, secure and accessible voting for the upcoming primary and general elections in 2020. Christopher Booker joins me now from his home in Westchester, New York. So Chris, what does the governor think about the plan?
Well, after Secretary Merrill released her plan on Monday, the governor, during his daily press briefing, did say he believes he can issue an executive order for August primary. Now, this was the primary that initially was scheduled for April, then was postponed for June and then moved again to August. However, he followed up and said he's not sure what he can do about the November election. And he would like the state legislature to decide. What they're really going to be discussing, though, is one single provision within these lists of excuses, illness, essentially, can you get can you be excused from appearing in person to vote because of your fear of contacting the Corona virus?
What about the potential for fraud or are there other things that people who oppose this are concerned about?
There's little evidence that mail-in voting actually increases the likelihood of fraud, but they do cite cost because it costs money to send ballots to people. It costs money to send applications for ballots to two people. Now, as states and Connecticut is one of them facing historic economic downturns, there's a real question about tax revenues. Cities and states are getting fewer dollars as the economy slows down.
Even if money was not an object and we were able to print everything out and get it in the mail. That takes time.
It does. And states are basically going to have to start making plans now for November. States will need to prepare for how they process all these ballots. They're anticipating a historic number of mail in ballots. For instance, this just this past week, Michigan had an election that was done by mail, which they received. Ninety nine percent of mail in ballots. And what's most interesting is participation rates doubled for these May elections. Usually participation rates are really, really low for these types of elections. These were local municipality elections. And what Audrey Cline is most worried about, states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that will have historic numbers of mail in ballots and won't be able to process these ballots on election night, particularly those states that are going to be crucial for the 2020 decision.
All right. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker. Thanks so much.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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