How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Forcing Your State to Make it Easier to Vote

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend the 2020 election, many states have taken action to expand voting access amid the global health crisis.

Calls for alternative voting methods have increased after the disastrous election in Wisconsin last week, where voters were forced to go to the polls in-person despite the fact that the state was under a stay-at-home order. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called the situation "unconscionable" in an interview with Politico on Monday morning.

Several legislators are pushing for more mail-in and absentee voting, and on Monday, Former First Lady Michelle Obama announced a new push to make it easier to vote by mail, register online and expand early voting. The initiative comes from her voter participation group When We All Vote, which she formed in 2018.

"No American should have to choose between making their voice heard and staying safe," she tweeted. "Expanding access to #VoteByMail, online voter registration and early voting are critical steps for this moment—they're also long overdue."

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Over the weekend, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed several measures into law that will bolster voting rights, including the adoption of automatic voter registration and declaring Election Day a state holiday.

"I think this pandemic will force a national conversation about making sure that all eligible voters can have their voices heard," said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at the nonpartisan government watchdog Common Cause. "Hopefully some of these reforms won't be temporary ones but permanent ones that will last after this pandemic."

Here's how states are working to making it easier for residents to vote amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Vote-by-Mail

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In all-mail elections, ballots are mailed out to every registered voter well ahead of Election Day. Voters then have a certain amount of time—usually a few weeks—to mail the ballot back or drop it off at specified locations.

Several states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah—already had an entirely vote-by-mail election system prior to the coronavirus pandemic. But several other states have joined the trend for their primary elections since the COVID-19 outbreak began, including Alaska, Indiana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wyoming. Some local officials are even considering an entirely vote-by-mail presidential election in November.

"Covid is forcing many states to move to mail balloting in order to protect people's health while the virus continues to afflict many areas. It is not healthy to have people stand in lines in close proximity with one another and a number of places have gotten good results through mail-in voting," said Darrell West, the vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institute.

"There are few complaints about the process and voters like the convenience of being able to mail in their ballots," West added.

One of the biggest opponents of vote-by-mail elections is President Donald Trump. Trump told reporters it was a "terrible thing" and misleadingly claimed that casting ballots by mail will lead to voter fraud, which is extremely rare.

Despite the president's protests, several Republican governors are forging ahead with the new system. Republican governors or secretaries of state in Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire and Iowa have recently announced that they will take steps to encourage voting by mail in upcoming primary contests. Maryland will also conduct its June 2 primaries largely by mail after GOP Governor Larry Hogan approved a plan from the state board of elections.

Absentee Voting

Every state already allows some form of absentee voting for residents who can't go to a physical polling location on Election Day.

At least 34 states and Washingtoncurrently allow for no-excuse absentee voting in all circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The list includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

But 16 states still require a reason for absentee voting, though many have started to make coronavirus-related exceptions. New York, for example, will now allow no-excuse absentee voting for its upcoming primary. Connecticut Democratic Governor Ned Lamont said officials were now working to allow no-excuse absentee voting.

elections chief wisconsin coronavirus pandemic
Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear as the Wisconsin primary kicks off despite the coronavirus pandemics on April 7, 2020. States have been expanding voting by mail and absentee voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. Derek R. Henkle/AFP/Getty Images

New Hampshire went a step further. Officials have announced that voters will be able to request an absentee ballot in both the state's down-ballot primaries and the November general election.

Plus, the six key swing states for the Electoral College map this year—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina—already allow voters to request mail-in or absentee ballots for any reason.

The battle in Congress

Democrats tried to include a nationwide mandate to allow every registered voter to mail-in ballots during the election in the historic $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March but the measure was rejected by Republicans.

Democrats, however, were able to get $400 million in funding for local election offices to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic but advocates say that it's not nearly enough to safeguard the 2020 election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned it will take at least $1.6 billion to prepare for November amid the pandemic. Pelosi has said she hopes the next phase of coronavirus-related legislation includes vote-by-mail provisions.

"That's just a drop in the bucket," Scherb said of the $400 million allocated to help states change their election processes. "That limited funding, unfortunately, leaves many states to fend for themselves."

Several Democratic senators, led by Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden, have also introduced their own legislation that would require states to offer all voters in the country the option of casting their ballots by mail.

"The right to vote is paramount and no citizen in this country should have to pick between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health," Klobuchar said.

How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Forcing Your State to Make it Easier to Vote | U.S.