(Updated with letter from senators and comments from hearing in last three paragraphs)
Problems that plagued primary elections in Georgia and elsewhere were a House panel’s focus Thursday as it seeks ways before the November elections to overcome obstacles to voting during the pandemic.
Long lines, fewer polling places, and absentee ballot delivery and return problems marred the latest primaries over the past couple of weeks, as election officials sought to prevent the spread of the virus and voters faced curfews in some areas due to recent unrest.
Tuesday’s primary in Georgia, in which voters chose Senate and House nominees in competitive races, was “a catastrophe,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Clarke said Georgia’s problems included misdirected absentee ballots, new and unfamiliar voting machines, lack of trained poll workers, and complex procedures causing long waits to vote — discouraging voters in metro Atlanta and elsewhere in the state.
There also were voting problems Tuesday in primaries in South Carolina and Nevada, according to the committee. These were similar to issues encountered June 2 in primaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
The House Administration Subcommittee on Elections sought to examine voting obstacles at Thursday’s hearing, according to a statement released beforehand by full committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and subcommittee head Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio).
“As has already been witnessed in several primary elections, access to the ballot in November is in jeopardy,” Fudge said in a statement Wednesday. “We must make substantial investments in our election infrastructure and the longstanding barriers that continue to keep far too many from exercising their right to vote.”
Fudge said President Donald Trump is “waging an insidious campaign to sow distrust in the electoral process” while election officials are making decisions that will determine how millions of Americans ultimately cast their ballot in November.
Concerned about disenfranchisement, Democrats have filed lawsuits in more than a dozen states to lift constraints on voting by mail.
Trump has repeatedly criticized Democratic efforts to expand voting by mail as a primary way to minimize spreading the virus at the polls. The president has said mail-in balloting risks widespread voter fraud and disadvantages Republicans, though election experts say fraud is rare.
Rep, Rodney Davis (Ill.) , the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said in a June 4 statement that the voting problems in recent primaries “demonstrated just how complicated implementing a vote-by-mail process is and how, if not done properly, it can unintentionally disenfranchise many voters.” Davis addsed that undermines Democrats’ claims that increased voting by mail is “a foolproof option” to conduct the election during the pandemic.
Democrats have backed legislation to provide an additional $3.6 billion in federal grants to help conduct elections during the pandemic, on top of $400 million in grants approved earlier this year. The measure also would require states to allow every voter to cast an absentee ballot, with no excuse needed. The provisions are included in House-passed coronavirus relief legislation (H.R 6800) which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the Republican-controlled Senate won’t pass.
Top Senate Democrats on the Rules, Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), and Gary Peters (Mich.), called on Republican leaders to also hold hearings focused on the primary voting problems in Georgia and elsewhere. “We respectfully urge you to immediately conveneexperts to testify on how we can improve the safety of elections and combat election related misinformation and disinformation during the pandemic,” the Democrats said in a letter released Thursday to GOP chairmen of the three panels.
During the House hearing, Republican election officials from Alabama and Louisiana said they were glad to have federal financial support for the increased expense of conducting elections under pandemic conditions, including increased voting by mail. “We will gladly accept federal dollars with no strings or political motivations attached, and we would prefer to not have to come up with state matching dollars in a time of such economic turmoil,” said Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin .
But moving to exclusively mail-in balloting would risk possible fraud and would be “impossible” for states that have had relatively few absentee ballots cast in previous elections, said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org