Democrats fear coronavirus impact on November turnout

Greg Nash

Congressional Democrats are stepping up efforts to guard against a potential drop in voter turnout in November driven by the coronavirus crisis.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) are calling for a dramatic increase in funding to states to prepare for Election Day.

They worry the presidential and congressional contests could be wracked with difficulties if the pandemic is still upending daily life in November.

Experts are already projecting a significant decline in voter registration as churches and college campuses remain closed, along with other places to register like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“There is no doubt this is going to have a negative impact on turnout. It is critical that we act now to minimize that negative impact,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Weiser, who participated in a conference call Thursday with Klobuchar and Wyden, said turnout may still be higher than 2016 but warned that if the outbreak is still raging, the record numbers that were predicted earlier this year may not materialize.

The Miami Herald reported last month that a record number of Democrats voted in the state’s primary contest between Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), thanks in large part to strong early voting.

But in Illinois, where participation in early voting was light, turnout for the March 17 primary plummeted.

Analysts fear the coronavirus crisis could disproportionately impact the registration and November turnout of African American, young and low-income voters — key Democratic constituencies.

“We’ll see an impact in terms of Election Day and we’re also experiencing an impact right now in terms of voter-registration efforts. The ordinary activity that would be taking place in a presidential election year has come to a grinding halt,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“Churches are not able to activate congregants, campuses are not mobilizing students, advocates are not knocking on doors and action needs to be taken to ensure that we capture who are eligible to vote,” she said.

She said the “digital divide” between wealthier and lower-income communities will exacerbate the challenge of reaching some voters.

“I’m particularly concerned about communities that have faced voter suppression efforts: African Americans and other people of color and low-income communities as well,” said Clarke.

She cited recent comments by Georgia state House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, who predicted that mailing absentee ballot request forms to all voters in the state during the coronavirus crisis would be “devastating” for GOP candidates.

In Thursday’s conference call with civil rights groups and reporters, Klobuchar and Wyden highlighted their legislation to expand in-person early voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all 50 states.

Klobuchar cited confusion over the Ohio primary, which was originally scheduled for March 17, postponed until June 2 and then rescheduled for April 28.

“The confusion regarding Ohio’s primary only underscores the need for federal legislation. Some states have announced that they will postpone their primary elections, and many election officials have expressed concern regarding how this public health emergency will affect upcoming elections,” Klobuchar said in a statement when she introduced her bill last month.

All voters in Ohio will now be required to vote by mail unless they have a qualifying disability or if they registered to vote without a home address.

Voting rights groups have sued over the new rules, arguing that voting by mail could disenfranchise thousands of residents.

Fourteen other states have postponed their primaries as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, including Georgia and Kentucky, two Senate battlegrounds, and Pennsylvania, a presidential swing state.

Despite the controversies over voting by mail, Pelosi and House Democrats are pushing for billions of dollars to be spent on giving more voters flexibility to do so in case the public health crisis spills into the fall.

“Vote by mail is so important … to our democracy so that people have access to voting and not be deterred especially at this time by the admonition to stay home,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday.

Pelosi said Congress needs to “facilitate the vote by mail” and called for $2 billion to be spent on helping secretaries of state around the country make it easier for people to vote remotely.

“Four billion [dollars] is probably what would really democratize our whole system,” she added, noting that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that President Trump signed into law last week contained only $400 million in election funding, which she called “small compared to the need.”

Weiser, of the Brennan Center for Justice, noted that 16 states still require voters to provide reasons why they need to vote by mail, although the number is shrinking as some legal interpretations recognize the coronavirus as a valid reason.

Democratic lawmakers and activists say the next coronavirus relief package, which House Democrats have already started to negotiate with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, needs to include other reforms to ensure participation in November.

Pelosi said letting people register to vote on Election Day is one of a “number of things” she would like to see in the next coronavirus relief package to give “more people the opportunity to vote.”

Some activists were dismayed that the $400 million in election funding provided by the CARES Act was not directed more explicitly to addressing a possible downturn in participation.

Democratic efforts to expand vote-by-mail, however, are likely to run into Republican opposition.

Trump said Monday that some of the election reforms Pelosi was pushing for in the most recent coronavirus relief package would make it harder for Republicans to win office.

“The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump told “Fox & Friends.”

“They had things in there about election days and what you do and all sorts of clawbacks. They had things that were just totally crazy and had nothing to do with workers that lost their jobs and companies that we have to save,” he added.

In Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones (D) faces a tough road to reelection, state officials decided to use federal money allocated for election security to sanitize polling places and boost the pay of poll workers.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he’s concerned about a recent decision by election officials in Ohio to distribute mail-in ballots without return postage, adding an extra obstacle for people to vote.

“I think all of us are very aware that voter suppression is alive and well in the country,” Clyburn told reporters this week. “We ought to make it as easy as we can make it for everybody to cast their vote to participate in this democracy.”

“I’m hopeful that with the next piece of legislation that we can have funds that are necessary that will allow us to get the ballot out to everybody so everybody can participate in this great democracy,” he added.

Clyburn also criticized the Ohio secretary of state for sending out absentee ballots without postage.

“That’s a poll tax. We will not be charging people to cast their votes. These kinds of shenanigans are not accidental,” Clyburn said. “I really believe that we should on the federal level make [the ballot] as accessible as we possibly can.

Tags 2020 elections Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Coronavirus Donald Trump doug jones Election Day Georgia Joe Biden mail-in ballots Nancy Pelosi Ohio Ron Wyden Steven Mnuchin vote-by-mail
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