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Columnist David Weigel of the Washington Post writes that many Republicans have turned against vote-by-mail plans because Democrats support it. Ironically, absentee balloting typically favors Republicans.
Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston called into a local interview show with bad news. It would be tough, he told FetchYourNews yesterday, to find “enough people to man” polling sites. It would be easier to “push back the date” of the primary, which Georgia’s governor had already delayed by two months. And a solution from Republican Secretary of State John Raffensperger — sending absentee ballot applications to every registered voter — was problematic, he said. “When you look at the people in Georgia that have lined up to support Secretary Raffensperger’s proposal, it’s every extreme, liberal Democratic group that’s out there,” Ralston said. “It kind of makes you wonder what their agenda is.”
That same conversation, with the same fear and suspicion, is happening in nearly every state. Just five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — were planning before the start of the coronavirus pandemic to conduct November’s elections with all-mail ballots. Voting rights groups and many Democrats have pointed to vote-by-mail as the most workable solution if in-person voting is a health risk.
But the very fact that Democrats support these changes has raised Republicans’ skepticism and heightened their opposition. Taking cues from the president, who warned this week that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if Democrats’ reforms were adopted, some conservatives argue that expanding vote-by-mail is a liberal scheme. Anything that made it into H.R. 1, the House Democrats’ package of voting reforms that has been ignored by the Republican-run Senate, is immediately suspect.
“These rules were all intended to basically make it easier to manipulate elections, and frankly, make it easier to cheat,” Hans von Spakovsky, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s election law project, said in an interview with Breitbart News. “They have absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with helping the country deal with the coronavirus.”
Von Spakovsky, who has been criticized for overhyping the risks of voter fraud, spoke for many Republicans. If nothing changes before November, the election and the primaries still being held between now and then will be held in wildly divergent conditions from state to state. None of the states that conduct all-mail voting are seen as competitive in this year’s presidential election, and the debate about one party fighting for partisan advantage has not squared with their own experience. In fact, for years, rules expanding the use of absentee ballots were seen as favoring Republicans.
“Being a very red state, we haven’t seen anything that helps one party over another at all,” said Justin Lee, who has been Utah’s director of elections for three years as vote-by-mail was implemented. “We’ve heard less concern about voter fraud than about whether every ballot that should get counted does get counted.”
Of the eight states expected to be see the closest races — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — only the first two have a robust absentee ballot tradition. New Hampshire requires voters who want an absentee ballot to declare that they will be at work, out of the state or unwell or that they have some religious exemption from in-person voting, while the seven other states have no special requirement.
Seven of the eight swing states have something else in common: divided governments. In Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Democratic governors are frequently at odds with Republican-run legislatures. (In Minnesota, Republicans control the state Senate, while Democrats control the House.) For Wisconsin, that meant Gov. Tony Evers’s proposal to send postage-paid absentee ballots to voters was dead on arrival, with the Republican speaker of the House calling it an “invitation to voter fraud.”
In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu contests with a Democratic-run General Court and has vetoed several attempts to make voting easier. In Arizona, Republicans control most of state government, minus the secretary of state’s office; in Florida, they run every element of the election process.
For the past few weeks, elections officials across the country have been talking frequently, sharing best practices and sometimes walking through the vote-by-mail process. The National Association of State Election Directors had been holding weekly conference calls, and Kim Wyman, the Democrat serving as Washington’s secretary of state, said her office had been in touch with officials in every other state, answering questions about vote-by-mail logistics.
They had demystified vote-by-mail’s anti-fraud measures, explaining that ballot envelopes must be signed, that county clerks call voters if there are problems with their ballots, and that they’ve been able to chase down the few cases where people voted twice. In Washington’s last election, 4.4 million ballots were cast but fewer than 100 ballots were flagged and none led to a criminal fraud investigation. Voter fraud remains rare, with high-profile cases representing a tiny fraction of votes cast each year.
Yet so far, in legislatures, the debate over adjusting voting systems to deal with the pandemic has broken across partisan lines. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, called for universal vote-by-mail on March 18, one day after the state’s presidential primary. Republicans were skeptical, with state Rep. T.J. Shope telling the Arizona Republic that he saw “[an] appetite on the other side to take advantage of a crisis and do things they’ve been trying to get done for a very long time.”
Conservative pressure kept vote-by-mail out of last month’s coronavirus response package an succeeded in reducing funding that Democrats wanted for a switch to that system from $2 billion to $400 million. According to Wyman, vote- by-mail saved money in some ways, such as giving disabled voters a ballot instead of prepping every polling place for disabled access, but the pandemic is going to pile on more costs.
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