Voting During Coronavirus: Will We Have Universal Vote-by-Mail by November?

Experts say vote-by-mail is the safest route, but implementing it for the November presidential election has become a partisan debate

The experts are clear: The coronavirus will be here through the summer and will stick around through November's general election.

An American presidential election has never been postponed or canceled, but with warnings from health officials discouraging crowds – which are generally unavoidable at polling places – officials are in many cases already working to ensure they have the extra resources needed to implement vote-by-mail on an expanded scale.

"It's either going to be vote-by-mail or nothing if we have to deal with a worst-case scenario," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is sponsoring an emergency bill to expand vote-by-mail, has said.

Others say vote-by-mail would have to be part of a suite of responses, such as extended early in-person voting with crowd controls and "curbside voting," which allows voters concerned about entering a polling place to return a ballot without leaving their car, NBC News reported.

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Most Americans support vote-by-mail for November

The 2020 election could be a watershed moment in voting-by-mail. The practice was already on the rise, and fears of the coronavirus are now pushing even more voters to take advantage of current laws, which could overwhelm officials if they don't prepare, NBC News reported.

Meanwhile, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in late April found that around two-thirds of registered voters surveyed support voting by mail in this year's election, if not all elections going forward.

During a pandemic, people being able to fill out their ballots at any location they choose and then mail them in or drop them off does mitigate some of the public health issues that arise when people are forced to come together within close proximity to cast ballots in person using shared materials like paper, writing utensils and voting machines. But partisan divides over voting by mail persist; take President Donald Trump's statement that if all-mail voting were implemented nationwide, "you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

For supporters of Trump, the fear of potentially deleterious political effects of vote-by-mail could supplant the reasonable fears of spreading (and possibly contracting) the coronavirus at crowded polling places. But the claims repeated by Trump and his loyalists – of increased opportunity for voter fraud, of a mail-in election that by default favors Democratic candidates – aren't held up by the facts.

On whether vote-by-mail is automatically advantageous to Democrats: There is no evidence to suggest this. In fact, there are a number of congressional Republicans who won their seats in all-mail elections.

One could also look to a handful of states that have fully embraced universal vote-by-mail, which refers to the system of sending all registered voters a ballot by mail without requiring them to request one first. Of the five states, three – Washington, Oregon and Hawaii – are reliably blue, but one – Utah – is reliably red, and the other – Colorado – is purple.

And the oft-repeated talking point by (mostly) Republicans – that mail-in elections are more susceptible to voter fraud – does not have data to support it.

Richard Hasen, an election law expert and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, pointed to a News21 review of voter fraud between 2000 and 2012, which found just 491 incidents of alleged absentee voter fraud among more than a decade of elections and 146 million registered voters.

“No means of voting is perfect, but the benefits of vote-by-mail — particularly during a pandemic — greatly exceed the risks of fraud associated with it,” Hasen told NBC News.

For the other states and territories that don't have universal vote-by-mail, is it possible to get to a nearly all-mail election by this November? Probably, experts say, but there's neither time nor money to waste. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates it would cost $2 billion to prepare the country for a national election, centered around a massive expansion of vote-by-mail, during the coronavirus.

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The Wisconsin Example

In April, Wisconsin effectively forced people to vote in-person amid the pandemic, despite the efforts of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to cancel in-person voting for the primary election. Ever's effort was ultimately blocked by the state's Republican legislature and the state Supreme Court.

Long lines to vote in Milwaukee on April 7 drew national attention, but in the weeks since there has been no surge in COVID-19 cases tied to the election. State health officials said 71 people who tested positive for the virus said they had been at the polls, but many of them had had other exposures and it was impossible to know where exactly they contracted the virus.

Since that election, though, Milwaukee officials decided to send absentee ballot requests to all of its registered voters. Racine, also a Democratic-leaning city, has followed suit. GOP voters, though, are scattered in smaller communities across Wisconsin, and the state legislature hasn't approved sending absentee ballot requests statewide – a discrepancy that alarms some Republicans, NBC News reported.

Even with in-person voting mandated for April's election, 61.8% of the 1.55 million ballots cast were absentee, cast by mail. 12.6% were absentee “early” votes cast in the clerk’s office or at a vote center before Election Day, the state's elections commission said in a report issued Monday that detailed a strain on the system.

"At a local level, the extraordinary volume placed enormous stress on election officials, elections systems, and the postal service," the report's summary findings said. "While the vast majority of voters were able to receive and return their absentee ballots in time to be counted, some voters who requested ballots in good faith did not receive them due to no fault of their own."

The commission said going forward it planned to use USPS Intelligent Barcodes to help voters and clerks track ballots and "every step in the process, from the application form, to the envelope, to the tracking tools, is under examination and being evaluated for potential improvements."

So, with less than six months to go before Nov. 3, 2020, what needs to happen to make sure all voters have the means to cast their ballots safely?

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Time, money and political will

Advocates said a massive expansion of vote-by-mail is technically feasible but may require more time, money and political willpower than is available.

According to Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who founded the group Fair Fight Action, one of the keys to implementing vote by mail is educating the public on what it is.

"We know it works, because every single state in America has vote by mail," Abrams told NBC LX. Efforts to expand vote-by-mail capabilities, she said, are just a matter of scaling up the current practices.

Some, including Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, say the simplest solution might be for states to use current laws to dramatically expand mail voting by, for instance, mailing every voter an absentee ballot request form and a postage-paid return envelope. That's what Raffensperger said he planned to do: send absentee ballot request forms to all registered Georgia voters before the state's postponed May 19 primary, now set for June.

"We successfully coordinated with Georgia to obtain envelopes and ballot PDFs," Jeff Ellington, president and COO at Runbeck Election Services, told NBC. His is one of multiple companies that specialize in developing election equipment, software and printing and mailing services for elections at every scale.

So far they have mailed out more than a million ballots to voters who have requested absentee ballots.

Just 5 percent of voters in Georgia cast their ballot by mail in the last two elections.

How do we know voting-by-mail works? Abrams suggests we just look to the president, who recently voted absentee in Florida's presidential primary.

"I would say if it works for the president of the United States, it works for America," Abrams told NBC LX.

There are five states which vote entirely by mail; California became a sixth for this November thanks to an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. And on Tuesday Michigan's secretary of state said absentee ballot applications would be mailed to all 7.7 million registered voters for the state's August primary and November's election, The Associated Press reported.

The large majority of voters in Montana and Arizona already cast ballots by mail, and at least 21 states have some laws that allow certain smaller elections, such as school board contests, to be conducted by mail. But by and large, most states and territories still have some decisions to make.

And while there is still time to do so, the clock is ticking.

"States and counties need to decide now if they want to expand their vote-by-mail options," Ellington said. "It is critical to allow enough time for elections officials to create and implement new procedures to ensure seamless and secure elections.

"The longer [states] wait, the harder it's going to be to figure this out," Justin Lee, Utah's director of elections, told NBC LX. "I think the sooner they act, the better. The best time to decide to be vote-by-mail is probably last year; the next best time is right now."

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Some states are already taking action

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, told NBC News she was inundated with calls from colleagues in other states seeking advice after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and lockdowns began.

"It started ... when states started realizing that the sheer volume of people it's going to take to stand up an election is going to be very difficult amidst this outbreak," Wyman said. She said it took her state five years to move to their current vote-by-mail system.

Nevada, a 2020 battleground state, and Rhode Island have already moved to conduct their rescheduled June primaries almost entirely by mail, while Maryland and New Jersey were planning to hold down-ballot elections scheduled throughout the next three months entirely by mail, and that could help pave the way for November.

West Virginia has added fear of coronavirus as a valid excuse to vote absentee, while Indiana temporarily suspended the state's absentee voting requirements, allowing anyone to cast a ballot by mail in their primary, NBC News reported.

The accessibility of vote by mail is expected to increase in some states, but it’s not clear whether more people than usual will fill out a mail-in ballot. And it’s not clear whether people who usually don’t vote will fill one out.

There's no central decision point to get to national vote-by-mail, since the Constitution puts each state in charge of its own elections.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach," the head of the National Association of Secretaries of State acknowledged in an open letter in March.

Michael McDonald, from the nonpartisan U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida, told NBC LX most states "don't have any of the infrastructure to run an all-mail ballot election at this point in time, and they're going to need to do a lot of ramping up between now and November."