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Advocates estimate the U.S. needs $2 billion to protect voters from coronavirus. Congress approved a fraction of that

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is pushing a bill that would have the federal government foot the cost of nationwide vote-by-mail.

Mail-in ballots
From October 30, 2018: Mail-in ballots for a congressional election in Orange County, California, waiting to be inspected by election workers.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

In order to slow the advance of coronavirus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends no gatherings of 50 or more take place at least until May. And because polling places can be crowded, several states, including Ohio, Louisiana, and Georgia, have postponed their presidential primaries.

But with coronavirus expected to persist in the U.S. for many months to come, what will states do when it’s time to vote again — in the summer and in November?

One possible solution: nationwide vote-by-mail. Although setting that up would be a challenge. Only five states have voting entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. For other states, including Minnesota, it may be possible to build out the infrastructure needed for a massive vote-by-mail program. But it’s going to be difficult, especially without substantial federal support.

Enter the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. The bill would ensure that all states have 20 days of early voting in person and no-excuse absentee vote by mail; guarantee all voter registrations submitted by mail and online, up until 21 days prior to election day, are valid; and provide all voters with the ability to request absentee ballots online up until five days before election day. To address concerns that polls are staffed with primarily older poll workers, it would require states to establish an initiative to recruit poll workers from high schools and colleges, as well as from state and local government offices.

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The federal government would pay for all of this. Though the bill currently provides no specific dollar amount on cost, it would authorize the federal government to reimburse states for implementing the act, including for absentee ballots, postage, and the development of secure remote ballot marketing.

The bill is cosponsored by about half of the Democratic caucusing members in the Senate (including Sen. Tina Smith). But Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are not sold on the bill.

The coronavirus spending package

In a report issued earlier this month, voting rights advocates at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University said the implementation of efforts to keep elections effective and safe during the coronavirus pandemic would cost about $2 billion dollars.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) proposed that amount of funding should be included in the Senate’s $2 trillion dollar coronavirus relief package. Pelosi’s suggested version of the elections bill would have some similar provisions to Klobuchar’s bill.

Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
In the Senate, Wyden and Klobuchar also advocated for the $2 billion. “Getting mail in ballots out has never been just in the purview of Democratic Secretary of States or Democratic States,” Klobuchar said. “There are blue states and red states and purple states that have greatly used mail in ballots. And given what we’ve heard from the Secretary of States, I think that this is one where we’ll be able to get the funding.”

But Pelosi’s proposal never made it into the final bill. It was cut in favor of a $400 million to expand vote by mail, expand early voting and online registration.

The reasons for Republican objection to the expanded voting package were not made clear during the consideration of the bill. Historically, McConnell has opposed expansion of voting rights. When addressing Democrats’ plan to make election day a federal holiday, he described it as “a political power grab.”

In an interview with Fox and Friends, President Trump echoed McConnell’s “no” position. “The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said about Pelosi’s plan. “They had things, levels of voting that if you ever agreed to, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

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A fiasco in November

Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center told the New York Times that the final result of $400 million for election protection in the coronavirus package is “inadequate.”

“If Congress doesn’t provide full funding,” he said, “We could have a fiasco in November.”

Stand Up America, a non-profit that aims to counter public corruption and backed Klobuchar’s bill, agreed.

“While we’re encouraged that our grassroots advocacy and pressure from Democratic lawmakers forced Republicans to increase funding for voting access from $140 million to $400 million, it’s still not enough to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election,” Stand Up America founder and president Sean Eldridge said in a statement. “Congress must fully fund national vote-by-mail, online registration, and early voting in the next coronavirus response package so that states can ensure every eligible voter can cast their ballot this fall.”

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
On Tuesday, fifty-one State Democratic Party Chairs from around the country echoed the same criticism in a joint letter. Led by DFL Chair Ken Martin, the President of the Association of State Democratic Committees, the chairs called for Congress to appropriate that same amount —$2 billion — in order to significantly expand vote-by-mail and early voting.

“If left unchanged, our current electoral system poses a severe public health risk that could rapidly accelerate the spread of COVID-19 while disenfranchising countless voters and calling into question the legitimacy of our elections,” the letter reads. “Just like our health care system and our economy, our elections infrastructure will need a massive infusion of resources to ensure that elections can go on and every voter has access to the ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Klobuchar told WBUR: “It was at least a start, but we need so much more.”

“Our bill, if we could include it in the next package of help for people, it would basically say that the polls have to be open twenty days before, it would get the money for the postage and envelopes and everything we’re going to need here, and then it would also help train poll workers.”

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But in spite of the language not being included in the coronavirus stimulus bill, Klobuchar’s position is still resolute.

“I think we will still be fighting Sen. McConnell on the details of trying to get the conditions in,” Klobuchar said before the language was cut from the coronavirus spending package. “But we’re not going to give up because the right to vote is paramount and no citizen in this country should have to pick between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health.”