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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Clock Already Running Down on Expanded Access to Voting By Mail

I’ve been following the battles in Congress over the idea of a federal mandate to allow expanded voting by mail this November. But whoever’s winning at any given moment, time’s running out, as I noted at New York:

The question of how to conduct elections during and immediately after a pandemic has been a red-hot topic during the relatively brief span of the U.S. coronavirus crisis. It blew up big time during the latter stages of the stalled Democratic presidential primaries (particularly in the last state that attempted to hold a live-voting primary, Wisconsin), and became a highly partisan issue in congressional negotiations over the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus legislation enacted last month.

Generally speaking, Democrats want voting by mail to be made available as broadly as possible going forward — preferably by mailing all registered voters ballots they can cast if they choose — and want the federal government to push states in that direction via carrots (major new federal funding) and sticks (a mandate). Most Republicans oppose major changes in voting practices to one degree or another. Some Republicans, notably the president, have claimed, without any actual evidence, that voting by mail is inherently vulnerable to massive fraud. And they are more or less united in opposing the kind of federal push toward voting by mail that Democrats have demanded. They did go along with a modest amount of federal funding for election assistance in the coronavirus stimulus bill, but kept it free of any mandates for voting by mail.

Congressional Democrats have renewed calls for conditional election assistance in negotiations over the next coronavirus stimulus legislation, as the Hill reports:

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to say on Friday how much money Democrats would try to include, saying she wouldn’t negotiate through the media. But Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said during a conference call with progressives groups on Friday that he would push to include $1.8 billion for mail-in voting and other ‘alternatives.’

“’I don’t think this president wants to have an election at all. I think he’s going to do everything he can to circumvent people going to the polls in November,’ Clyburn said during the call.”

But simply by waging a battle against expanded voting by mail, Republicans may be winning the war, because the clock is running down on major election rules and infrastructure changes in cash-strapped states that may not have the wherewithal to adopt near-universal voting by mail, even if they want to move in that direction, as Dominic Holden reports:

“’I would call it an emergency situation,’ said Carl Amacker, whose company, BlueCrest, makes Relia-Vote, a system that handles outbound mail ballots and processes them once they’re returned.

“BlueCrest currently supplies vote-by-mail systems to counties around the United States, yet like other leaders in the industry, it can’t expand those systems overnight. ‘Counties need to act very, very quickly,’ Amacker told BuzzFeed News, explaining that it can take months to build and install mail-in election systems. ‘The problem is we are going to run out of time.’

“Despite many inquiries in recent weeks, there are ‘not a lot of orders yet,’ added Jeff Ellington, president of Runbeck Election Services, which makes envelope sorters, prints mail-in ballots, and develops software to manage mail-in elections.”

The dirty little secret of American democracy is the ramshackle nature of our ridiculously decentralized system of elections. Starved of funds, staffed by elderly volunteers, often supervised by Republican state and local officials determined to hold down turnout for partisan reasons, that system didn’t get fixed after the Florida debacle in 2000 and now faces a supreme challenge. And in states with limited experience with voting by mail, it will soon be too late to change by November:

“The emerging consensus among industry leaders and election experts is that expanding voting by mail for November — particularly in large jurisdictions that haven’t processed a huge number of absentee ballots in the past — could require making commitments in the next few weeks …

“Getting ready for a big spike in mail-in ballots can involve months of preparation: In addition to building new machinery, the mere act of printing ballots is complex, as neighbors can be in different legislative districts, so ballots have numerous variations. Mail-in elections also entail constructing multilayer security envelopes, assigning each envelope a barcode for tracking, and installing computer systems to help verify voter signatures upon return.”

That’s in addition to the legal changes necessary in states that currently discourage voting by mail. Sixteen of them require an excuse for utilizing absentee ballots, though Democratic governors in Kentucky and New York have waived these requirements by executive order, and New Hampshire’s Republican election officials have announced that coronavirus fears represent a “disability,” which qualifies voters rationally convinced they are at risk to vote by mail there as well.

At some point, Democrats in Congress may need to decide whether fighting for weeks over conditions for federal-election assistance, or simply getting as much money into the pipeline as quickly as possible and hoping for the best, makes the most strategic sense. Any Democratic tack that delays election preparations, and thus elevates the odds of chaos, plays into the hands of the King of Chaos in the White House.

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