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Some Remain Skeptical About Voting By Mail — Even During A Pandemic


The coronavirus crisis is playing out during an election year. Some 20 states have already delayed primaries or other elections. And as part of its $2 trillion rescue package, Congress is sending $400 million to local election officials. But as NPR's Miles Parks reports, there's little agreement about how that money is best spent.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Democrats in Congress had big ambitions for election reform to respond to the coronavirus. They wanted jurisdiction to be required to offer weeks of early voting, and they wanted every voter to have the option to vote by mail. But they lost that battle. The $400 million going to elections is much closer to the original Republican Senate bill than Democrats' $4 billion House proposal.

LARRY NORDEN: There has to be more money.

PARKS: Larry Norden is the director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

NORDEN: Look. Election officials, in the week before the stimulus package, were dealing with one of the worst, if not the worst, weeks that any of them experienced in living memories. You had primaries canceled, poll worker shortages, polling places closing.

PARKS: The relief package includes no early voting or mail voting requirements. It includes no requirements at all. Basically, it sends money out to the states to respond to the coronavirus however they see fit. Some places will mail ballots to every registered voter. But in other parts of the country, there will still be skepticism about expanding vote by mail, even in a pandemic. Here's Norden again.

NORDEN: I'm not exactly sure what happened in the last few weeks at the national level. But there seems to have been a much more partisan breakdown over this issue that's really unfortunate.

PARKS: In Alabama, voters can use the outbreak as an excuse to get an absentee ballot. But for that ballot to be counted, an affidavit needs to be signed by two other people or a notary public, a challenge when social distancing is being encouraged. I asked the state's Republican secretary of state, John Merrill, whether voters were hoping for a loosening of those rules or an expansion of mail voting due to fears about the virus.

JOHN MERRILL: We don't really hear that except from liberal extremists. Those are the only people we hear that from.

PARKS: Merrill says he feels like Democrats are using the outbreak as an excuse to push for voting reforms they've wanted for years.

MERRILL: Rahm Emanuel once was quoted as saying that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. And so there are a number of people who are attempting to take advantage of that opportunity today.

PARKS: But the issue still doesn't break cleanly down partisan lines. Massachusetts, for instance, has had a Democratic legislature for decades. And still, the state requires an excuse to vote by mail. That excuse could include the coronavirus.

Kim Wyman is the secretary of state of Washington, one of three states where elections are completely by mail, and she's a Republican.

KIM WYMAN: My colleagues look at me like, why in the world would you ever do what you do?

PARKS: Opposition in her party breaks down into a few categories, she says.

WYMAN: Clearly, many of my Republican colleagues are not fans of vote by mail. And a lot of times, it is the perception that it is more susceptible to fraud or some sort of cheating.

PARKS: But Wyman and other voting experts say states that are good at vote by mail have systems in place, like ballot tracking, to address those concerns. The bigger divide is that most Republicans believe states should have complete control over how they run their elections, not the federal government. Election officials also caution against making big procedural changes the year of an important election because it can anger or confuse voters. Wyman says the Democratic proposals, while being well-intentioned, could backfire.

WYMAN: I think the moment that Congress tries to drive something, whatever that solution is - one solution down every single state's throats, I think there will be backlash. And you will not have a successful election. And we cannot afford that to happen.

PARKS: It took Washington state close to two full decades to make the transition, Wyman says. So this November will just be too quick for some states, even in a time of a crisis.

Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.