Lawmakers push for vote by mail in response to coronavirus pandemic

How America's vote-by-mail system works
How America's vote-by-mail system works
Key Points
  • The $2 trillion stimulus package signed by President Trump appropriated $400 million for elections. More could be on the way.
  • A bill being considered in Congress would require states to implement absentee voting during emergencies for any reason, including for the coronavirus pandemic.

States are postponing elections and lawmakers are trying to figure out ways to hold a presidential election in the middle of a pandemic.

A bill being considered in Congress would require states to implement absentee voting during emergencies for any reason, including for the coronavirus pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last Tuesday the country needs to move toward a "vote by mail" system to give citizens a safe way to cast their ballots while the coronavirus makes it dangerous to congregate.

"That's why we wanted to have more resources in this third bill that just was signed by the president, to get those resources to the states to facilitate the reality of life: that we are going to have to have more vote by mail," Pelosi told MSNBC.

That's in stark contrast with what President Donald Trump said a day earlier on Fox News: "They had things, levels of voting that if you'd ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

The House and Senate are considering the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020. The bill aims to allow the race for the White House to continue without disruption using a system that has been gaining traction since the Civil War: vote by mail for any reason.

While all states offer some form of absentee voting, the bill would require "states to adopt contingency plans to prevent the disruption of federal elections from the COVID-19 virus."

The bill asks for $500 million for states to implement these changes, less than the $4 billion House Democrats had requested. In the $2 trillion stimulus package signed by Trump on March 27, $400 million was earmarked for elections in the form of grants to states. 

"The money will come in a way that the states are used to," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "They've gotten funding this way before from the Election Assistance Commission, and the funding — once people apply — has to go out in 30 days.The funding will be done on a per-capita basis. But each state will get at least $3 million and then the state has to match 20 percent within the first two years. So that's how it's going to work. It's very straightforward. But the whole idea is to get the money out immediately." 

According to the bill, when states of emergency are declared by at least a quarter of the country, the bill would go into effect. States and election jurisdictions would have 30 days to make contingency plans public for elections 180 days after the bill goes into effect.

States would have to enact no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail, a feature that almost two-thirds of states already have in place.

"Thirty-four states allow some form of vote at home and the District of Columbia. But that still means that there are 16 states that need this," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who introduced the bill in the House. "And there is uncertainty surrounding what's going on in the elections. You saw the state of Ohio canceled their primary literally at the 11th hour over the objection of a federal judge who had declared that the election should go forward. We have confusion now. We have health problems. We have staffing problems. So I think this is something that will allow people to come together. It shouldn't be partisan."

Under the proposal, states would also have to honor online requests for absentee ballots received five days prior to Election Day, guarantee the counting of absentee ballots postmarked or signed before the close of the polls on Election Day and require states to offer downloadable and printable absentee ballots.

"It's actually the same process that we already have in place for military and overseas voters," said Amber McReynolds, president of the National Vote at Home Institute. "So it would now be something that could be applied to domestic voters as well."

One interesting feature of the bill is the provision that states provide self-sealing envelopes with prepaid postage for all voter registration and absentee ballots, after Washington state cautioned against licking envelopes.

Some states-rights activists are not board with this legislation.

The bill is very problematic for a number of reasons," said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Center at the Heritage Foundation and a member of Trump's now disbanded election integrity commission. "First of all, it's not needed. But I can tell you, as a former local election official, that the coronavirus is more than enough of an excuse, particularly given all the orders coming out from governors and mayors for people to stay out of public places."

Watch the video to see how coronavirus could change voting in the U.S.