Democrats Want More Money for Mail-In Ballots Due to Virus Fears

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A pair of Democratic senators is pushing for more money to help state election officials phase in safer voting procedures, particularly mail-in ballots, arguing the funding included in the current virus economic relief package isn’t sufficient.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden(D-Ore.) said they would continue working with state officials to provide more federal money for the effort.

“We don’t think it’s too late” to help states move toward voting by mail, Klobuchar said Thursday in a phone interview with reporters. She said the effort would continue during negotiations over the next round of coronavirus relief legislation.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar

The House on Friday cleared for President Donald Trump’s signature a coronavirus relief measure (H.R. 748) that includes $400 million for grants to state and local election systems.

Wyden and Klobuchar also want states to allow every voter to vote by mail, with no excuse — such as disability or travel — needed to cast an absentee ballot. The senators also called for at least 20 days of in-person early voting before Election Day, so voters won’t have to crowd into polling sites.

While there’s no guarantee Congress will approve additional money or more requirements, Wyden said the lawmakers will continue to “pound away day in and day out” to attach election-related provisions to the next round of relief legislation.

About $2 billion is needed for a massive effort to move states toward voting by mail, rather than in person, in order to lessen the public health risk of the coronavirus pandemic, according to an estimate by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, including at least $500 million for printing and postage costs. States have been moving toward mail-in balloting, but 17 states still limit absentee balloting to those with an excuse, according to the Brennan Center analysis. As little as 2% of voters in these states returned mail-in ballots in 2018.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-Calif.) said House Democrats would be “taking the lead” on the next round of coronavirus relief legislation, though it remained unclear when that would occur. An earlier version of relief legislation proposed by Pelosi would have provided $4 billion to upgrade voting systems and called for sweeping changes in election laws.

States Lobbying

Klobuchar told reporters she’s enlisted support from state election officials, including Republicans, to make the case that voting problems aren’t being exaggerated by Democrats seeking to “federalize” elections. During the recent negotiations, Republican secretaries of state got in touch with Senate Majority Leader Mtch McConnell(R.-Ky.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to make the case that money is needed “yesterday” to help them move to more voting by mail, she said.

Blunt is chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees election laws. Klobuchar is the top Democrat on the committee. Blunt said in an email he supported the new grants “to help ensure state and local election officials have the resources they need to address the unique challenges they face as a results of the coronavirus pandemic.”

“We provided significant election-related funding in the phase 3 bill and we will continue looking at what state and local needs are as we move forward,” Blunt said in a statement.

Leaders of the National Association of Secretaries of State, Iowa Republican Paul Pate and New Mexico Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver,said in joint letter Wednesday that state election officials are preparing to deal with the pandemic, while recognizing “there is no one size fits all approach.” The letter said states “may increase their vote by mail presence, extend absentee mail ballot request deadlines, increase drive-up curbside voting, and/or expand absentee voting eligibility.”

The Democratic senators said the federal money in the latest relief bill will be divided among the states based on population, not need, and states will be required to come up with matching funds totaling 20% of each federal grant. Oregon and the handful of other states already conducting elections by mail are set to get a share of the money.

Grants in the current relief bill would be distributed by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and would go out to states within 30 days of enactment of the stimulus bill; states wouldn’t have to come up with matching funds until 2022.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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