WASHINGTON ― Democrats want to make it easier to vote in the face of unprecedented disruptions caused by the growing coronavirus pandemic by allowing voters in all 50 states to be able to vote by mail ahead of November’s general election.
Five states have already postponed primaries in response to the pandemic, citing the public health risk to voters and poll workers. In the Illinois primary earlier this week, election officials saw depressed turnout in many counties. Experts worry it could happen again if the spread of the disease continues unchecked.
On Wednesday, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley joined Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, all Democrats, in introducing a bill to expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states. It’s an idea Wyden, in particular, has been advocating for a long time.
“If Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Kentucky had vote by mail on the books years ago, they wouldn’t have had to cancel their elections. It will give us the highest chance of avoiding delayed elections and ensuring Americans can exercise their Constitutional rights. No one should have to put their health at risk to vote,” Wyden said in a statement.
The bill would require that voters in all states have 20 days to vote early either in person or by absentee ballot. It would also ensure that states begin processing votes cast 14 days before Election Day, in order to avoid lengthy counting delays seen in some large states like California.
Most states allow any qualified voter to cast an absentee ballot without offering an excuse. But in one-third of states, an excuse is currently required, limiting voters’ ability to receive an absentee ballot.
Oregon was the first state to conduct its elections exclusively by mail. The program is highly popular there and it works. Oregon topped the charts for voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections at 63 percent of eligible voters. Three other states have since changed to an entirely vote-by-mail system: Washington, Colorado and Hawaii.
“Luckily, mail-in-voting is a tried and true voting method that would allow Americans to vote without having to travel to polling places or gather in crowds ― and it’s been massively successful in Oregon for nearly four decades,” Merkley said in a statement. “Now is the time to bring this practice to the national stage so we can ensure that even during this crisis, the American people can safely exercise their sacred right to vote.”
The bill stands a slim chance of passage, however, even as the country grapples with the growing epidemic. Republicans have steadily opposed similar efforts to expand voting by mail on a national level, recognizing the widely acknowledged fact that increased turnout would hurt them at the ballot box. They’ve also pointed to limited instances of fraud as a reason to not go forward with the effort.
Most of the states that do not offer early voting or absentee ballots are controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, further limiting efforts to expand voting.
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