The coronavirus pandemic already is playing havoc with the 2020 presidential election. Ohio’s primary, which was scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed following a decision by state officials and a flurry of legal challenges; and Georgia and Louisiana have postponed primaries for the coming weeks over concerns about having large groups of people gather at polling places.
There also have been questions about the president’s ability to delay the November general election. While the president does not have that unilateral power and a delay would be nearly impossible (more on that later), Congress should take steps to protect the ability of citizens to vote on Nov. 3.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has proposed the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020 that would provide federal assistance for vote-by-mail throughout the country; a companion bill in the House of Representatives is being led by Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer. Congressional representatives from Washington have seen first-hand the benefits of vote-by-mail and should support these bills.
Washington and Oregon are two of three states — along with Colorado — that conduct all elections by mail. About 20 states allow voters to request absentee ballots and mail them in, but most require a reason for the voter’s inability to go to the polls. Aside from that, most of the nation requires citizens to visit a polling place and risk the kind of personal interaction that health authorities are currently warning against.
The thought of that requirement undermining the 2020 presidential election and endangering the health of Americans should be anathema. Imagine a scenario in early November where, say, Miami is in the throes of a coronavirus outbreak and voters are reluctant to stand in line at the polls. That alone could turn the results in the swing state of Florida and alter the outcome of the national election.
Wyden’s proposal would decree that if at least 25 states have declared emergencies related to COVID-19, registered voters in all states would be allowed to request an absentee ballot or the state could require all voters to cast ballots by mail. The act would provide $500 million in federal funding to help states pay for postage and for scanners needed to process the ballots.
Ensuring the ability of citizens to vote is essential for the legitimacy of this year’s highly scrutinized election. So, too, is having an election take place as scheduled.
Presidential elections are set in federal law as occurring on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November — the Tuesday between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8. Changing that would require a bill passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by the president. In addition, Congress is seated on Jan. 3 and the president is inaugurated on Jan. 20. Those dates are set in the U.S. Constitution and cannot quickly be altered.
Oregon adopted vote-by-mail for all elections in 1998, and Washington followed suit in 2011. The system in both states has been successful, and critics’ concerns about rampant voter fraud have been unfounded. Allowing citizens to fill out ballots at home and drop them in the mail is preferable to what was recently witnessed in California, Texas and other states, where voters waited up to seven hours to participate in the presidential primary.
Given the disruption created by COVID-19 and the possibility of that disruption lingering until November, Congress should act quickly to ensure a stable and resilient election this fall.