The Ballot is on the Ballot

Update 447 — The Ballot is on the Ballot:
What Georgia Means for Voters in November 

Scenes this week of the long voter lines in urban Georgia in the face of COVID, machine malfunctions, and state suppression remind us that the ballot itself is on the ballot in November. We bring visions, or memories, of democracy and self-government, of greater inclusion and participation or less, to the process. If we can get a ballot. Oppose access to it at your peril.  

What happened in Georgia on Tuesday demonstrates the particular imperative this year of voting accommodations and reforms and the extent to which some will go to prevent them. On display at a House Administration hearing yesterday were a full range of problems, proposals, and platitudes on the question of voting rights during COVID. We cover them and suggest an enactable solution below. 

Good weekends, all…

Best,

Dana

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Tuesday’s Georgia primary — the process, not the outcome — was nothing short of a disaster. Some voters never received their absentee ballots. Others waited in line until after midnight to vote in person. Some polling places didn’t even have functioning machines. And Georgia voters are not alone. Outdated policies and voting infrastructure have forced countless Americans to compromise their health just to exercise the right to vote. 

Today, we examine what’s plaguing state primaries and outline a plan for ensuring that November’s election avoids the primaries’ pitfalls (hint: it’s already passed the House).

Problems: Ballot Access, Registration 

States largely control administration of elections, and the patchwork of processes and regulations that makes up America’s voting infrastructure is failing. Even states with good policies are unprepared to deal with the challenges wrought by COVID-19. For example, Wisconsin is one of 17 states that allows for no-excuse absentee voting, as well as both same-day and online voter registration. It should be one of the most well-equipped states. Instead, its primary was a fiasco. A nearly tenfold increase in absentee ballots overwhelmed election offices, as over 60 percent of voters cast their votes via mail. Meanwhile, thousands of Wisconsinites did not receive their ballots in time for their votes to count.

More primaries this cycle have underscored the need to prepare for unprecedented levels of absentee and mail-in ballots. In Pennsylvania, 1.8 million voters requested an absentee ballot for the primary — more than 16 times as many requests as 2016. Georgians requested over 1.5 million absentee ballots, a more than five-fold increase from 2016.

Reduced hours at agencies offering registration services and the suspension of voter registration drives due to COVID-19 have undercut Americans’ ability to register to vote. Per the Center for Election Innovation & Research, voter registration across 12 states and Washington, DC was down an astonishing 70 percent in April 2020 compared to April 2016. 

Polling places across the country have been closed due to volunteer shortages and legitimate public health concerns, forcing voters to wait in line for hours to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Preserving in-person voting is critical, since some voters cannot readily access vote-by-mail or require polling place accommodation. Closing polling sites will result in scenes similar to Milwaukee — where 180 sites were reduced to just 5 — and Georgia, where voters waited in line for up to six hours. This is preventable. 

Preparing for November 

Election officials know what they are up against this year. In a letter published by the Brennan Center for Justice, dozens of state and local election officials implored Congress to provide additional election assistance funding. Should Congress fail to act, what happened in Wisconsin and Georgia will play out on a national scale. 

State election administrations (many of which are under-resourced) will be inundated with absentee ballot applications, creating a backlog that will result in voters not receiving ballots in time. Those who receive their ballots will return them to those same election offices, who will then have to verify and count an unprecedented number of mailed-in ballots. This could significantly delay results and create widespread confusion as results trickle out over days or even weeks.

Solutions: The Consensus for Reform

Multiple bills have been introduced to help preempt a voting crisis in November. Below, we detail the consensus among policy experts on the type of reforms and the amount of funding required to help ensure that we don’t face chaos in the general election. The HEROES Act that passed the House last month provided the reforms and necessary funding to ensure a safe and secure general election. 

  • Registration: Online voter registration gives voters a safe method for registering, which 39 states and DC already offer. Same-day registration, currently enacted in 21 states and DC, is even more important now given the decline of registration this spring. The HEROES Act requires both online and same-day voter registration in all states.
  • No-Excuse Mail Ballot Access: Vote-by-mail ensures that Americans don’t have to choose between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health. The HEROES Act ensures that voters in every state can request a no-excuse absentee ballot and do so online. Five states, including deep-red Utah, already have all-mail elections. Oregon, which has had all-mail elections for 20 years, has only had 15 cases of voter fraud. Twenty-nine others and DC already allow no-excuse absentee voting. A recent Gallup poll shows that 64 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing all voters to vote by mail.
  • Early Voting: In addition to expanding vote-by-mail, it’s critical that states implement and expand in-person early voting. If a voter doesn’t receive a ballot in the mail on time or needs assistance to vote, there needs to be an in-person option. Hours-long voting lines can be avoided if states allow voters to come to the polls weeks in advance. 

    Both Republicans and Democrats in the House Administration hearing yesterday spoke to the need to preserve safe in-person voting. The HEROES Act requires states to hold 15 consecutive days of early voting before the November election with at least 10 hours of voting per day.
  • Adequate Funding: States must have resources to properly administer the general election. The Brennan Center found that only $4 billion is needed to prepare for November. The CARES Act provided an initial $400 million to states for election assistance, but states can only access the funds if they agree to match with 20 percent of their own funds.

    Democrats and some Republican Senators have already proposed lowering the matching level and increasing support to states. The HEROES Act removes the matching constraint completely and provides an additional $3.6 billion in grants to states. It’s curious that this funding isn’t gaining broader Republican support, as Republican Secretaries of State such as in Kentucky advocate for greater absentee voting.

Getting to 60

Progressives know that GOP concerns about voter fraud usually feature hysterical hyperbole if not flat-out fiction, but they serve as a code-word cover for opposition to reform. The days of systematic fraud are gone with the Daley-style political machines of yore (unless you consider voter suppression by the state a form of voter fraud). 

How to get the 60 votes in the Senate needed for passage of this desperately needed reform? Democrats and GOP members in tight Senates races this year might agree that voters fraud is possible. And if higher fines and penalties and stiffer sentences will address a problem (that doesn’t exist) and provide cover for them to support it, it will be up to Trump to sign or veto. 

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