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The question of how to conduct elections safely during a pandemic remains timely as voters go to the polls in five states on Tuesday. With COVID-19 still present across the country, officials are trying to prepare for this fall’s election, such as by expanding the use of mail-in ballots. But as William Brangham reports, Republicans are making unproven allegations about voting by mail.
It is Election Day in five states, including Georgia, where voters faced broken voting machines and hours-long lines in the heat.
Georgia's secretary of state called the situation unacceptable and ordered an investigation into voting problems in the Atlanta area.
Georgia also had fewer poll workers in place due to the pandemic.
With the coronavirus still present in all 50 states, officials around the country are trying to determine how to hold this fall's election while keeping voters safe. One of the key ways is voting by mail.
But, as William Brangham reports, President Trump and the Republican Party are casting unproven allegations about the process.
President Donald Trump:
When you do all mail-in-voting ballots, you are asking for fraud.
Less than six months from Election Day, President Trump is trying to undermine a process through which millions of Americans currently cast their vote, through the mail.
The practice allows voters to receive a ballot in the mail, fill it out at home, and then mail it back in or drop it off at a secure location, that rather than going to a physical polling place and casting your vote.
Absentee voting is traditionally a type of mail-in voting, where you need to be approved to receive a ballot. And some states have stricter requirements than others.
ProPublica's Jessica Huseman, says mail-in voting has been around for a long time.
People have been voting by mail since the Civil War. We sent ballots to soldiers during the Civil War, and they returned them by mail. So, this is certainly not something that's new in American history. And in the last several years, it's gotten even more common.
But now, given the pandemic, and the risk of infection whenever people are crowded together, election officials in many states want to avoid a repeat of this, where some Wisconsin voters crowded into long lines for hours for an election in April.
With growing health concerns, more than 60 percent of all votes cast in that state were cast by mail. That included Middleton residents Brady Minter and his wife, Michelle, whose daughter Emmy has a congenital heart defect.
Anybody who's been to a voting poll knows how cramped those spaces can be. And so it was really kind of an easy decision, given our personal concerns with our daughter having some heart issues. Barring any sort of unexpected events, we would do the same thing in November.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:
People should not have to choose between voting and preserving their good health.
But that hasn't stopped the president from lashing out at Democratic officials in Congress and in key battleground states who are trying to expand vote by mail, this while voter turnout falls amid the pandemic.
If people mail in ballots, there's a lot of illegality.
The president has accused them — with no evidence — of trying to rig the 2020 election.
The president threatened to withhold federal aid from Michigan for sending out vote-by-mail applications to registered voters, and Nevada because its Republican secretary of state sent out mail-in ballots. Both are legal in those states.
We don't want them to do mail-in ballots. We don't want anyone to do mail-in ballots.
The president himself votes with a mail-in ballot from Florida, his legal state of residence.
If you need it for some reason, or if somebody is not well that's one thing. But when you send out 7.7 million mail-in ballots, there's forgeries.
The president's campaign against vote-by-mail comes as public support for it is rising amid the pandemic.
In a recent "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll, just over half of voters said they would vote by mail in November if given the option. But the partisan divide is stark. About 60 percent of Democrats say they would, compared to only about 40 percent of Republicans; 56 percent of Republicans say they would still vote in person.
Many people have been voting by mail for a very long time, including our military and overseas voters.
Tammy Patrick is a former elections official in Arizona. She's now a senior adviser at the bipartisan foundation Democracy Fund.
We have heard the president and many others make accusations that voting by mail is an invitation to widespread fraud. Is there any evidence that that's true?
No, there is no evidence that that is true. And I will say that we already have tens of millions of Americans voting by mail.
For tens of millions of Americans, they have their ballot handed to them by a postal carrier, not a poll worker. In many places, you have signature verification when the application comes in, so it's compared to your voter registration form. In many places, that same signature type of verification is also done on the ballot envelope.
There are other security measures where auditing takes place that looks to see where are places that we're getting things that are coming in late, or we're seeing abnormal activity from what we have seen in the past.
In the 2016 election, more than 33 million Americans voted using mail-in ballots. Experts expect that number to more than triple in 2020.
Five states, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, already conduct their elections entirely by mail, with California looking to join them this year because of the pandemic.
While there's no evidence of widespread fraud with mail-in or absentee ballots, it does occasionally happen. One recent case happened in a 2018 North Carolina congressional race, where a Republican operative illegally gathered and submitted ballots.
You know, I don't want to discount the concerns over voter fraud, especially when it comes to vote by mail, because the instances of fraud that we have seen in the last couple of years have been with absentee ballots.
So, these things do happen. All kinds of voter fraud does happen, but is exceedingly rare.
And while the president is attacking Democratic-led states, officials in red states, like in Georgia, are also trying to expand mail-in voting.
I don't think that it is a surprise or a shock that the states that he's denigrating are Democratic-leaning and the states that he is applauding are Republican-leaning.
So, this is not necessarily about the security of vote by mail. It's about who will vote Republican and who won't.
It is an absolute, brazen power grab.
The Republican National Committee, led by Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, is now suing California to stop that blue state from mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters.
The president's made false claims about who was, in fact, receiving ballots in the Golden State.
People that aren't citizens, illegals, anybody that walks in California is going to get a ballot.
It is those individual states, not the federal government, that determine the rules for how votes will be cast in November.
And in the face of the pandemic, more states, both red and blue, are looking to expand absentee and vote-by-mail options. And so far, the Trump campaign and state Republican officials are still encouraging their voters to vote that way, if they choose.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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