May 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Deadlines start now for safe voting in November

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

November seems a long way off, but deadlines already are beginning this month for states to figure out how to hold safe elections this fall, when the coronavirus will still be spreading.

Why it matters: In the next few months, decisions by state and federal courts and lawmakers, governors and local election officials will determine how Americans cast their ballots in the middle of a pandemic.

  • Federal aid for expanded election processes is in limbo. Lawsuits are flying. And the clock is ticking.
  • Meanwhile, states face budget crises and a surge in politicized legal fights over elections.

Driving the news: Some states need to start building out online voter registration or absentee ballot application systems this month, according to a new report by the Brennan Center. Others will need to order new, high-volume ballot counting technologies to handle increased vote-by-mail.

  • States may need to place orders for ballot printing and envelopes by mid-June.
  • By the end of August, states should have fully operational online absentee application systems, the report says.
  • And when it comes to finding and training election judges, “this isn't a November or October or even September issue. This is a June issue,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told Axios.
  • Given that poll workers have typically been older, and therefore more at risk of COVID-19, it’s been more difficult to recruit.

The National Association of Secretaries of State is hosting weekly calls with its elections committee and secretaries of state across the U.S. to discuss relevant questions, challenges and deadlines, a spokesperson tells Axios.

The Democratic National Committee's director of communications for battleground states, David Bergstein, tells Axios: "We obviously don't know what the coronavirus is going to look like in the fall.”

  • "But we are certainly urging governments at every level who have a role in administering elections to start making plans now."

Meanwhile, state governments, activists and political groups are warring in court over what early voting options will be available for November, and with what deadlines and verification requirements.

  • The longer some court decisions are delayed, the harder it could be for election officials to have proper logistics and security measures in place.
  • "Some court rulings could put a strain on the capacity of elected officials to deal with all of this, which is why lawsuits sooner rather than later are better," Richard Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California, Irving, tells Axios.
  • Last-minute changes could also sow confusion."At some point, we're going to have to print ballot instructions," Simon said. "We don't want to give voters whiplash by telling them one thing one day, and then as a result of litigation telling them another thing another day."
  • But Marc Elias, a well-known Democratic elections lawyer who was general counsel for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, tells Axios that he's confident that courts will take into account the time elections officials will need to adjust.

By the numbers: Elias said by his estimation there have already been more election lawsuits this year than in all of 2016. "What COVID has done is pour gasoline on a fire."

  • He's involved in voting rights lawsuits in 16 different states — including battlegrounds such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas.
  • He's seeking free postage for absentee ballots, counting all ballots postmarked by election day, changes to signature matching laws and allowing community organizations to collect sealed ballots.
  • In other states, lawsuits seek to change the application of state laws that require voters to provide specific excuses in order to vote by mail, such as in Tennessee and South Carolina.
  • Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law is tracking 22 active, major election cases, ten of which were filed this year.

The Republican Party is invested in election-related court fights in 13 states, according to its recently launched "Protect the Vote" website. But it's coming at the issue from the other direction — by making sure remote voting doesn't become too easy and lead to voter fraud.

  • "Democrats are trying to use coronavirus and the courts to legalize ballot harvesting, implement a nationwide mail-in ballot system, and eliminate nearly every safeguard in our elections," the site reads.
  • The RNC and the Trump campaign announced this month that they are doubling its legal budget to $20 million to fight Democratic efforts to overhaul the voting laws.
  • Election experts and studies have found voting fraud to be extremely rare in the U.S., although mail-in voting can be more vulnerable, per the New York Times.

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