Vote-By-Mail Deadlines Leave States Just Weeks to Get Ready

May 29, 2020by Ryan Teague Beckwith, Bloomberg News (TNS)
Nancy Fulton, a clerk, sorts vote by mail ballots in preparation for a vote tally at the Los Angeles County Registrar's office in Norwalk, Calif. on Nov. 4, 2010. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Election officials have just weeks left to ensure that their states can handle a surge of mail-in votes in November in the face of fierce opposition from President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress.

With just a little more than five months to Election Day, localities and states need to decide soon whether to buy new equipment to help sort, verify and count mail-in ballots — if they can afford it — or rely on staff to manually handle the crush of incoming mail.

The problem is particularly acute in the battleground states of Wisconsin and North Carolina, which have not traditionally had high rates of vote-by-mail and where Democratic governors are at odds with Republican-led legislatures over whether to expand absentee balloting.

Record numbers of Americans are expected to seek to vote by mail this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Even as lockdown orders are starting to ease, recent polls show more than two-thirds of Americans support allowing vote by mail, while the number of absentee ballots sent out in primaries has soared since the pandemic began.

Yet without financial support for absentee voting from Congress and the White House, voters in some states might have to line up at a polling place on Nov. 3 because election organizers simply ran out of time.

“If you want somebody to do your ballot mailing for you, you are probably already too late to find a vendor who will do that,” said Paul Lux, elections supervisor in Florida’s Okaloosa County and a former president of the state association of elections supervisors. “If you need envelopes printed, you are now in the queue behind God-knows-how-many jurisdictions who now need to order a bunch of envelopes.”

“States and localities really need to act within the next month” if they want the equipment tested and ready by September, in time to prepare equipment and send ballots to overseas residents and military voters, said Amber McReynolds, chief executive officer of the National Vote at Home Institute and former Denver elections director.

Eleven states have softened restrictions on so-called no-excuse absentee voting. That’s on top of the 34 states and the District of Columbia that allow absentee ballots for any voter, including six mostly Western states planning to conduct the election almost entirely by mail.

Governors of both parties have said they would like to expand voting by mail, given the rules against gatherings of more than 10 people and social distancing practices. The main obstacle is financial: For smaller counties, the voting machines could cost tens of thousands of dollars; for larger counties, hundreds of thousands.

Local and state budgets are under severe stress from the pandemic-induced recession, and proposals for more federal funding remain stalled by Senate Republicans and Trump, who want to wait before deciding on another round of economic stimulus.

Without a good system in place to handle vote-by-mail, people may not receive ballots in time, some may be compelled to stand in long lines to vote, risking exposure to the virus, and the counting could be marred, creating disputes that could leave the outcome in doubt for days or even weeks.

The funding is caught up in a political battle that largely breaks along party lines. Congress allocated $400 million in additional election spending in the first coronavirus stimulus package in March, though states need to provide a 20% match to receive the funds. The House has proposed another $3.6 billion, but talks are stalled in the Senate.

Trump, who is leading the Republican opposition to expanding vote-by-mail, said in early May that he was in “no rush” to negotiate another stimulus bill. He has disparaged absentee ballots as “ripe for fraud” and mostly helping Democrats, without evidence for either claim. Last Wednesday, he threatened to withhold federal grants from Michigan and Nevada if they sent out absentee ballots.

And on Tuesday, the president repeated a claim that expanding voting by mail would lead to a “rigged” election and assailed California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to send mail-in ballots to all of the state’s registered voters.

“When you do all mail-in voting ballots, you are asking for fraud,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “People steal them out of mailboxes. People print them and then they sign them and give them in. The people do not know if they are double counted. People take them away. They force people to vote.”

Even if it’s approved, the stimulus aid might not arrive soon enough for election officials to buy new machines that sort returned ballots, verify signatures, extract ballots from envelopes and tally votes. Government purchases typically go through a slow-moving contracting process, while vendors may take 30 to 90 days to deliver equipment to handle a flood of voter mail in the weeks before the election.

There are some hard-and-fast deadlines to consider. In Florida, for example, election administrators have to plan for an Aug. 18 primary for local and state legislative races, and a July 4 deadline to mail ballots to overseas voters. For the Nov. 3 general election, the overseas mailing deadline is Sept. 19.

“If the governor would like us to mail ballots to the in-county people at the same time, now would be the time to tell me,” Lux said.

Even if they plan to count the mail-in ballots by hand — which would delay the announcement of results and likely lead to more fraud allegations — elections offices around the country could face a personnel crunch, as the paid workers they rely on to staff polling places tend to be older and therefore more vulnerable to Covid-19. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, more than half of poll workers in 2016 were older than 60.

To complicate matters, officials in many places still aren’t sure exactly what the rules for mail-in elections will be.

Democratic-aligned groups are suing in multiple states to require pre-paid postage on ballot envelopes, drop witness requirements and improve the signature matching used to verify ballots, all of which would require changes for elections administrators.

Damon Circosta, chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said he is worried that local officials won’t be able to respond to last-minute changes to election rules, as happened in Wisconsin during its April 7 primary.

“We need direction from the legislature and we need direction from wherever it’s going to come, and we need it yesterday,” he said.

Some officials have taken matters into their own hands, contacting their peers in states that already run elections entirely by mail and looking at best practices recommended by the National Vote at Home Institute and other groups.

States like Ohio and Nebraska have used recent primaries and special elections as a test run for new vote-by-mail procedures.

For the six states that will be conducting the election almost entirely by mail – California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – only minor changes will be needed to cope with the pandemic.

Julie Wise, elections director for King County in Washington State, said county officials were considering adding more early voting sites to prevent crowding for the small number of voters who still cast their ballots in person.

Other states, such as Arizona and Florida, have traditionally had higher rates of absentee voting, so administrators there are focusing more on stepping up their existing efforts. But a number of states in the South and East have traditionally had low rates of absentee voting, so they face steeper challenges.


©2020 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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