The provision could drastically change November’s election, if the covid-19 coronavirus is still circulating by then.
America has held elections during national pandemics before, like 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. While it’s too early to predict whether the covid-19 coronavirus will still be virulent by November, some are already speculating about the virus’s effects on in-person voting locations.
Voting by mail has become more common in recent years. In 2018, about 40% of voters voted absentee, early, or by mail. One of the three covid-19 stimulus packages included funding to increase vote by mail options.
What the legislation does
The Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act would require all states to offer a vote-by-mail option, if at least 13 states declare a state of emergency related to the covid-19 coronavirus. This might reduce the number of people standing in lines at polling places on Election Day, but wouldn’t eliminate the lines entirely.
There are two different types of voting by mail: mandatory with an opt-out provision, or optional with an opt-in provision. This appears to be the latter type, since the legislative text reads that voters should “be able to request” mail ballots.
There’s a strong chance that would happen. By April 11, all 50 states had already declared a state of emergency. While some states may rescind that by November, it seems likely that the number where the state of emergency remains in effect by November would still be at least 13.
The House version was introduced on March 11 as bill number H.R. 6202, by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR3). The Senate version was introduced the same day as bill number S. 3440, by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the legislation preserves one of America’s most important and necessary civic traditions during a time of crisis.
“Some things are overlooked when emergencies occur, but responsibly participating in our democracy should not be one of them,” Rep. Blumenauer said in a press release. “With a crucial election season approaching, we should not be putting individuals that are highly susceptible to contracting COVID-19 in danger by forcing them to vote in person. We need to act responsibly and allow for absentee voting to keep our communities safe.”
“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Sen. Wyden said in a separate press release. “When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site. This is a nonpartisan, commonsense solution to the very real threat looming this November.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that voting by mail offers potential for fraud, and Republicans worry that it would hurt their electoral chances.
“I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting,” Trump said at a press conference, without evidence and after voting by mail himself in 2018. “It shouldn’t be mail-in voting. It should be: You go to a booth and you proudly display yourself. You don’t send it in the mail where people pick up — all sorts of bad things can happen by the time they signed that, if they sign that — if they signed that by the time it gets in and is tabulated.”
But the real reasons may be more partisan, as Trump himself admitted: “If you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he warned on Fox & Friends.
(A new Stanford University political science paper from just last week found that voting by mail has neutral partisan results on average, not benefitting either party’s electoral outcomes.)
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 16 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Administration Committee.
The Senate version has not yet attracted any cosponsors. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Odds of passage are low in the Republican-controlled chamber.