“The Coronavirus Supercharges Vote-by-Mail Efforts, But Barriers Remain”

Carrie Levine for CPI:

In extraordinary circumstances and with enough money and resources, anything is possible, said Audrey Kline, national policy director of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for vote-by-mail options.

“Based off what we are seeing right now, with a very popular election, a very in-tune electorate and a pandemic, we think that states are going to see a pretty massive shift toward mail balloting no matter what,” and they need to get ready, Kline said.

There are signs she’s right. Maryland, for example, declared that a special election for a House seat would be conducted entirely by mail. In West Virginia, the secretary of state issued emergency rules that will provide virtually every voter access to an absentee ballot for its May 12 primary.

Phil Keisling, who was secretary of state in Oregon from 1991 to 1999 — when the state was transitioning to voting primarily by mail — said technology is better now than it was then. A vote-by-mail advocate who chairs the board of the National Vote At Home Institute, Keisling said making changes for November “will take some ingenuity and some planning, but a lot of that is called for anyway in this crisis.”

In 2018, “31 states saw fewer than 15 percent of voters cast ballots by mail,” the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Matthew Weil wrote recently. Some states still require voters to have an excuse to cast an absentee ballot. The five states that now vote nearly entirely by mail phased in the change over multiple elections, not all at once, investing in equipment and tweaking processes along the way.

States need specialized equipment and a lot of preparation to process mail ballots. Nothing is impossible, Kline said, given money and extraordinary circumstances, but she cautioned: “I do not have a situation in my mind that would get everyone a mail ballot in this country” for the November election.

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine and the author of a new book, “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy,” said it’s important to distinguish between all-mail elections and an expansion of mail ballots. “I think it would be extremely difficult to move to all-mail elections for November,” he said. “But every state has at least an excuse-based absentee balloting system that could be expanded.”

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