Congressional Action Urged Now to Ensure Mail-In-Ballots are Safe Pandemic Option for 2020 Election

Interview with Sylvia Albert, director of the voting and elections program with Common Cause, conducted by Scott Harris

Can mail-in voting ensure a fair election and safeguard the electorate’s public health? With the continuing health hazards posed by the coronavirus pandemic, voters across America will face a unique set of challenges in this November’s presidential and congressional election. Without alternatives to waiting in long lines to cast an in-person ballot, it’s likely that millions of worried voters will sit out the election.

Efforts are now underway to ensure that all Americans have a safe and secure option to participate in this year’s election, that many believe may well be the most important in modern American history. One such option is undertaking a major expansion of the use of mail-in, absentee ballots. However, President Trump and other Republicans have attacked mail-in voting as ripe for fraud, without providing evidence to back up that charge.

Trump admitted the real reason for his opposition to mail-in voting, when he said on March 30, if the level of voter participation was expanded, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

When Wisconsin’s Republican legislature and the GOP-dominated state Supreme Court forced voters to go to the polls during the state’s April 7 primary election at the height of the pandemic, activists groups across the U.S. redoubled their effort to demand vote-by-mail and other safe options. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sylvia Albert, director of the voting & elections program with Common Cause. Here, she discusses the need to permit mail-in ballots in all 50 states, and the $4 billion in funding required, found in the HEROES Act legislation recently passed by the House.

SYLVIA ALBERT: In a case like a global pandemic, the reality is that that is going to affect different communities in different ways. And so as we saw in Wisconsin, people are fearful. Some people will still come out. Some people will not. Some people will, you know, start going to bars the day that it opens. And some people will take the time until they feel more comfortable. So key to ensuring everybody has access to the ballot is ensuring that the system is flexible and meets people where they are. So that would mean increased early voting, absentee mail-in voting, you know, different strategies. But the reality is that if we continue with elections as normal in November, then there will be millions of people disenfranchised because it is not a normal time right now. Vote by mail is safe and secure and ensures that we can have a free and fair election with different communities being able to access the ballot.

There is no indication that it is more preferential to party or another. In the last election in 2018, 27 percent of Americans voted by mail. So it’s also not a new idea. There are tried and true tactics and programs to vote by mail that we know work and we know how to implement them in a way that ensures both security and maintaining people’s access to the ballot. There are some actual really interesting different models being explored. There are places using drive-through looking at drive through voting. There’s curbside voting, mobile voting with mobile voting centers, excuse me, which is when, you know, basically got like a motor home that goes from place to place so that it comes to the community and you’re basically kind of voting outside. But, you know, these are all great options, but we need to have options for in-person and at home.

SCOTT HARRIS: President Trump has attacked mail-in voting as ripe for fraud without providing evidence. However, and he maintains that mail-in voting will be bad for the Republican party. The Republicans have reportedly allocated some $10 million to fight vote by mail initiatives in states across the country. Give us an update if you would, on lawsuits that have been initiated to block mail-in voting, which as we’ve been talking about, may be critical to conducting a free and fair election in November.

SYLVIA ALBERT: Well interestingly, they announced that they have doubled their budget. So, the Republican party, and I’ll say, will be spending $20 million to ensure that voters – honestly, the only conclusion I can come to — is that [they’re] trying to ensure that voters do not have access to the ballot. So there are states around the country that have generally had an absentee ballot excuse requirement. And in the era of a global pandemic, they have smartly and correctly moved to waive that requirement or have stated that everybody fulfills the excuse requirement because none of us have immunity to COVID-19. And what we’re seeing is that Republicans — the RNC is already filing in these states like Virginia and Indiana and different places to say, Oh, actually, no, we don’t want you to waive that requirement. People should not be allowed to vote at home in a global pandemic.

SCOTT HARRIS: The House has passed a $3 trillion piece of legislation called the Heroes Act – it allocates a lot of money to states and frontline healthcare workers and also $4 billion in funding for states to organize vote by mail and to secure the November election so that the most people possible can participate. The Senate seems to be saying it’s going to block that specific legislation, but what’s the hope here in terms of allocating enough federal funds to make sure we can all vote in, in November, regardless of the status of the coronavirus pandemic?

SYLVIA ALBERT: Local and state election officials of both parties really want to ensure a safe, free, fair, accessible, secure election in November. And it is they who are asking and pleading for the resources to be able to do that. So we are advocating to Congress, what we are saying is — These local election officials are telling you what they need. Please listen to them because they know what their community needs in order to execute this election. The initial $400 million that was in the first CARES Act only covers I think, something like 11 to 15 percent of the funds needed. And, the Brennan Center has a great resource to kind of outline all of the steps that need to be taken to ensure a secure and accessible election November. And the reality is we need Congress to step up. We need them to do their jobs to ensure that we have a real election in November.

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