Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is very popular with her colleagues these days.
As the person in charge of elections for one of the nation’s five vote-by-mail states, Wyman’s office has been fielding calls from state government officials all over the country, many with the same question: how could they use all-mail elections in the face of COVID-19?
“I’ve kind of lost count,” Wyman said of the calls. “It’s been non-stop.”
The contagion may ease over the next few months, but the more likely scenario is that restrictions on gatherings could continue for a long time — or be reinstated as the cooler weather reappears.
Yet primaries and general elections for president, Congress and state legislatures are all scheduled for this summer and fall. And having voters come into voting precincts to cast ballots, not to mention having poll workers staff election sites, might not be a wise option.
“We’re in an emergency situation,” said Wyman, a Republican in a very blue state. “We have to get past politics and the partisan lines and figure out how to protect voters and come up with some solutions.”
Wyman, a longtime advocate for vote-by-mail, has mixed news for her fellow secretaries of state. Yes, they can do it — though it takes time and money. States that already have broad use of no-excuse absentee balloting and early voting are in a stronger starting position to make a quicker transition. Those who do not will have a much harder time.
“States that are like Washington was 10 years ago or California is now, where 60 percent of your voters are voting absentee already, you can make that transition … this year,” Wyman said. “The further a state is away from that, the harder it is going to be, and the more resources it will take.”
For Minnesota, which falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, with no-excuse absentee voting and early voting, “it’s a heavy lift but it can be done,” she said.
To do so, the state would probably need to centralize its mail ballot processing, instead of how it’s done now: in dozens of counties and cities across the state. That’s because the infrastructure required to process the mail-in ballots — high-speed envelope sorting machinery, staffing, space — is just too expensive to duplicate locally.
The five current vote-by-mail states — Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii and Colorado — still have election day voting centers for voters who want to invoke same-day registration or who lost their ballots. And there are still centralized centers for ballot processing that currently have staff in close quarters, a reality that caused Wyman and 18 county elections officers to ask Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to postpone spring special elections for school levies and bond issues.
“From courthouse closures, to workforce reductions of election staff, postal staff, or disruptions with vendors who support election operations, circumstances outside of our control could make it impossible for counties to meet statutory election requirements,” the letter stated. “These include mail processing, voter registration, canvassing results, and certifying an election.”
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he is talking with legislators as well as local election officials about what elections might look like during a pandemic.
Expanded vote by mail “is certainly on the menu,” Simon said. “Obviously, the number one priority will be minimizing situations where people are congregating, and that means polling places.”
“I do generally think that moving towards more voting by mail is the way we’re gonna have to go if this thing lasts or recurs in August or November,” he said.
While the Minnesota primary isn’t until August, there are three school elections this spring in Minnesota. Houston County is trying to fill an open county commissioner seat, and Simon said he is talking to local officials there to see if those elections need to be delayed.
In recent elections, Minnesota had about 24 percent of its vote cast by mail or via early voting. “We are far-better equipped than most states to ramp up mail participation,” Simon said.
But he said Wyman told him and other secretaries of state this week that in order to be a viable option for 2020, decisions need to be made in weeks, not months.
In Minnesota, whether such a dramatic change could be done via executive order by the governor, or would need to be passed by the Legislature, isn’t clear. And neither the Minnesota House nor the state Senate appears to be very far along in those conversations.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, the Big Lake Republican who chairs the Senate State Government Committee dismissed the need for broad changes. “Discussing major changes to our current election system at this time would be premature,” said the former secretary of state. “Minnesota already has no-excuse absentee voting, and social-distancing for elections could be accommodated under current law.
“Given the current situation, it’s beneficial for everyone if daily life, including elections, will be expected to return to normal and if still needed, use appropriate mitigations with current law.”
Rep. Raymond Dehn, the chair of the House Elections Subcommittee, said talks are in the preliminary stage as to what changes to election law are needed, if any. “We are monitoring the progress of the crisis and are currently in conversation with the Office of Secretary of State to evaluate several options to be sure that voters will be able to safely participate in upcoming elections,” the Minneapolis DFLer said.
Congress seems more focused on the issue. The compromise COVID-19 response bill has $400 million for state elections efforts “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” The money would flow through the Help America Vote Act mechanism which means the Minnesota Legislature would have to approve spending, something that has led to delays and controversy with cybersecurity grants.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has cosponsored legislation to expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states. It would also allow voters who did not receive ballots to use printable ballots now used for some military voters.
Said co-sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon: “Vote by mail is increasingly looking like the only way for states to conduct elections. If Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Kentucky had vote-by-mail on the books years ago, they wouldn’t have had to postpone their elections. No one should have to put their health at risk to vote.”
The UCLA Voting Rights Project issued a white paper this week calling for universal vote-by-mail.
“Congress should take action, as part of the relief measures it is considering, to fund and set minimum standards for voting procedures that would apply nationwide,” the report noted. “If the federal government does not act, state and local leaders must do so. Considering the time necessary to erect voting infrastructure which will adequately respond to COVID-19, it is essential to pursue this action immediately.”
But it will be expensive. Vote At Home, an organization that promotes mail voting, estimates it would cost $1.2 billion to convert the U.S. to all-mail voting.
Vote at Home CEO Amber McReynolds said the costs include mailing a ballot to everyone in the U.S., pre-paid postage, sorting and scanning equipment on the back-end. She also said the costs increase if the equipment is purchased for each local jurisdiction rather than at a centralized location.
Wyman said there is one bit of positive news for states. Because of the attacks on voting systems during the 2016 election and increased funding under the Help America Vote Act, states are better prepared for disruptions. “I don’t think any of us contemplated a pandemic. I think we were thinking earthquakes and fires,” she said. “But it has positioned states and local jurisdictions to be ready. If this had happened four years ago I don’t know what we would be doing right now.”