Republicans and Democrats barrel toward collision on voting by mail
Zach Montellaro, POLITICO
Americans want to be able to vote by mail in November — but Democratic proposals to require it appear to be going nowhere fast in Congress.
House Democrats have sought to drastically overhaul the American electoral system in light of the pandemic, arguing dramatic change is needed to allow Americans to vote safely.
In a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted last weekend, nearly three-in-five voters nationwide said they either strongly or somewhat support a federal law that would mandate that states “provide mail-in ballots to all voters for elections occurring during the coronavirus pandemic.” Just a quarter of voters either somewhat or strongly oppose the idea, with the remainder not having an opinion.
However, support for the idea is split along ideological lines. A supermajority of voters who are registered or lean Democratic — 77 percent — back the idea. Republicans are more divided: 48 percent are opposed and 42 percent in favor.
House Democrats have proposed mandating that states send all voters a ballot in the case of emergencies — in their most recent coronavirus relief package, dubbed the HEROES Act, along with other sweeping changes to the elections. The bill would also require universal “no-excuse” absentee voting, online and same-day voter registration and expanded early voting, among other changes.
In broad strokes, Americans support the expansion of no-excuse absentee voting. A recent Pew Research Center found seven in 10 adults supported allowing any voter to vote by mail if they want to.
But congressional Republicans have long opposed Democrats’ efforts to make major changes to the electoral system. They've argued that Democrats are trying to federalize elections, and that there wasn’t enough time to make such widespread changes before the November election.
“I’m not opposed to vote-by-mail programs,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the ranking member on the House Rules Committee. But states, he said, should determine how to conduct their own elections, adapting to specific circumstances.
“We as Republicans have a distinct, different philosophy on what the federal government’s role in elections should be. We believe that the states and localities are the best ones to get their voters to the polls and recognize what’s going to give everybody an opportunity to cast a vote,” Davis continued.
Davis cited concerns that a rapid switch to a vote-by-mail system could leave some voters disenfranchised, a point that’s been echoed by activists for the disabled communities, Native Americans and others.
President Donald Trump has also vocally opposed voting by mail, alleging without evidence that it would lead to widespread fraud. Trump himself has voted absentee.
House Democrats’ expansive HEROES Act is, as Democrats privately acknowledge, unlikely to become law. Instead, it's their opening bid for the next coronavirus relief negotiations. Democrats could vote as early as Friday on passage of the package.
However, Senate Republicans are cool on advancing any further relief legislation at the moment. "If we reach a decision along with the administration to move to another phase, that will be the time to interact with the Democrats," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday.
The election administration reforms in the package would likely be one of many points of contention. McConnell strongly opposed Democrats’ expansive election reform bill H.R. 1, which contained some of the same reforms included in the HEROES Act and was passed on a party line vote in the House in early 2019.
Democrats argue that the public widely supports their proposals — and that the election security grant funding mechanism included in the HEROES Act is of critical importance.
“On balance, [voters] think voting by mail is a good idea, and that we ought to expand that opportunity. They also, based on preference or access or other factors, want to make sure that there’s going to be some meaningful in-person voting opportunities,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped shepherd H.R. 1 through the House last year.
Sarbanes and other Democrats also said all forms of voting need to be available in November. Those include "expanded vote by mail, significant early voting opportunities, and then safe in-person voting opportunities on Election Day," he said. "We need all three of those things.”
House Democrats are seeking to allocate $3.6 billion in additional funding to election officials to help prepare their states for holding elections in the middle of the pandemic. The first CARES relief package included $400 million for that purpose.
Some outside groups are pressing for more funding for state and local election officials, arguing that time is running short.
“We understand that Democrats may not be able to convince Republicans to ensure specific language about vote by mail," said Sean Eldridge, founder of the liberal group Stand Up America. "But we think $4 billion in election [security] funding” is critical. Stand Up America backs the entire HEROES Act.
Democrats are also seeking to scrap a requirement that was in the first CARES Act that mandated states match 20 percent of the federal election grant to receive the money. The mandate has irked election officials from both parties.
“This is emergency funding. You don't put matches on an emergency,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said in April. Pate also said he opposed the federal government dictating broad requirements to the state.
Even absent any federal mandate on voting by mail, states are expected to see a dramatic uptick in the practice in both the remaining primaries and November election, opening up the possibility that state election systems will be overwhelmed.
Wisconsin’s conflict-ridden April 7 election saw a drastic increase in the proportion of mail ballots cast, from about a 12 percent absentee voting rate in the spring of 2016 elections to over 70 percent of ballots being cast by mail this year. The increase came with no policy changes from state officials, and only minor tweaks from the courts.
Wisconsinites reported problems with the system — including voters saying they never received ballots — as election officials scrambled to deal with the tidal wave of requests.
In Ohio’s primary, thousands of voters didn’t receive a ballot by the deadline.
Other states are seeing an increase in interest in mail voting for their upcoming primaries. Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has already sent out 1 million ballots for its June 9 election, after his office mailed active voters a ballot request form, up from 40,000 in past primaries.
Voting rights advocates warn that time is running short to ensure states have the money to prepare. On Monday, the Brennan Center, a think tank and advocacy group that has pushed for expanded vote by mail and more federal funding, issued a report noting that states are quickly approaching several deadlines. States, for instance, need to place orders for high-speed scanners to tabulate ballots this month, and for ballot printing and envelopes by mid-June.
“For election officials, the next few months are critical for obtaining supplies, installing new equipment, and testing new technology," said Michael Waldman, the group's president of the Brennan Center, said in a statement applauding the election funding. "Those preparations can’t wait until the fall."
The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll was conducted May 8-10, surveying 1,994 registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.