States push millions of people toward absentee voting amid pandemic
State and local election administrators are pushing millions of voters to cast their ballots by mail in upcoming elections amidst a pandemic that could spread widely where people gather.
The applications raise the prospect of a massive surge of ballots pouring into election administration offices in the days leading up to the presidential election.
They have also raised the ire of President Trump, who on Wednesday accused two states of acting illegally and raised the prospects of punishing those states by withholding funding.
At least 32 million people have already received or will soon receive absentee ballot applications in the mail, either for upcoming primary elections or November’s general elections.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said Tuesday her office would mail an absentee ballot application to all 7.7 million registered voters in her state. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) said last month they would send applications to every active voter in their states, too.
“The safety of voters while casting their ballots is our top priority,” Pate said when he announced the mailings. “The safest way to vote will be by mail.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has ordered county elections officials to send applications to the state’s 12 million registered voters. Local officials in Milwaukee, Miami-Dade County, Broward County and Palm Beach County — areas crucial to winning swing states Wisconsin and Florida — will send their voters the applications too. Philadelphia city officials are including absentee ballot applications in food boxes bound for low-income city residents.
In Minnesota, legislators left a provision to expand absentee voting out of an election funding bill they recently passed. Gov. Tim Walz (D), who backs universal vote by mail, has said he is evaluating his options.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic, and voters need access to mail ballots in order to keep themselves healthy and safe,” said Myrna Perez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Mail ballot applications are a way for election administrators to be proactive in terms of educating their voters that an election is coming up, that there are deadlines they need to pay attention to.”
Voting by mail has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in Western states where an overwhelming majority of voters now cast their ballots that way. Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Hawaii run their elections entirely by mail. Elections officials in California and New Jersey are already planning to do the same for November’s general election.
Some Republican critics say the costs incurred by local governments are too much and that they are opening the door to potential fraud. Michigan state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R), who served two terms as secretary of state before returning to the legislature, said Benson had stepped on authority that should be reserved for the state’s 1,603 local clerks who actually administer elections.
“I’m concerned about people getting double and triple applications and people that are dead,” Johnson said in an interview. “I’m concerned about integrity, that’s the core of democracy.”
The money Michigan will spend to mail the applications “should be used for PPE [personal protective equipment] for first responders and doctors and nurses and people who will work those polls,” Johnson said. “To spend millions and millions of dollars this way I think is so wasteful. And concerns of integrity are really important to me.”
Trump, an absentee voter himself, criticized Michigan and Nevada, where Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske — a Republican — conducted the June 9 primary entirely by mail. In tweets Wednesday morning, Trump falsely called the Michigan and Nevada moves illegal and threatened to hold up federal funding if they move ahead. The most recent round of federal funding to states battling the coronavirus has already been delivered to both Michigan and Nevada.
Studies show that increased absentee voting does not significantly benefit one party over the other.
But ignoring the millions of people who plan to vote by absentee is not an option for strategists guiding campaign decisionmaking. Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, Republican strategists know millions of their own voters prefer to vote by mail. State Republican parties and the Republican National Committee are encouraging voters to sign up to vote by absentee; RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said this week that she has no problem with elections officials sending applications to voters.
“They’re gearing up to run all-mail elections, despite what Trump says,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist who studies voter turnout at the University of Florida.
The coronavirus crisis that continues to infect millions of Americans is already pushing millions more in states across the country to sign up to vote by mail.
Raffensperger’s office said Tuesday that 1.5 million Georgians had signed up to vote by absentee in the June 9 primary, far more than had ever requested a mail-in ballot before. Other states have reported similar surges.
“While we understand the Georgia tradition of in-person voting and look forward to returning to normal in-person voting in future elections, the extra precautions necessary to preserve voter and poll worker health during the pandemic will result in long wait times and an increased health risk that could be avoided through absentee ballots for this election,” Raffensperger said in a statement.
The increased reliance on absentee ballots is likely to slow reporting results. Even states with significant experience running all-mail elections can take days or weeks to process the ballots they receive. California allows its county elections administrators a month to finalize their tallies.
County and local offices “need to make sure they have the personnel and technology and time to process absentee voter registration applications, and sending these applications out early should help with that,” Perez said. “It all comes down to having sufficient resources and time.”
But even before the Election Day crush, the rush of new absentee ballots poses a looming challenge for election administrators, many of whom are not used to processing so much mail. That challenge will be exacerbated in small, rural areas that do not typically see more than a few dozen absentee ballots cast every year, where election administration budgets are already tiny.
“The larger jurisdictions have more staff, they have simply more storage space to put all the pieces of paper they’re going to have to manage. There are some rather mundane logistical considerations that people aren’t talking about,” McDonald said. “You cannot run an election out of a file folder, but that’s the technology and the capacity that some of these rural jurisdictions have.”
An election for a state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin highlighted the pitfalls. Thousands of absentee ballots were not sent out because of technical and production flubs, the Wisconsin Election Commission said in a report issued this week. About 1,600 more ballots were found in a mail processing center after the election.
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