States have begun reshaping election policies to expand access to mail-in voting.
Election officials in states with restrictive absentee requirements are looking for ways to allow as many voters as possible to use absentee ballots, a safer alternative to in-person voting in a global pandemic. If this crisis continues into November, however, some experts warn that a pivot to voting by mail could strain state resources and disenfranchise certain voters if not handled properly.
U.S. elections have been in flux since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio all delayed their Democratic primaries. New York officials also are considering delaying that state’s April 28 primary.
But many states are taking their responses to COVID-19 further.
Voting by mail looks different in each state. While most states allow all voters to cast a mail-in ballot, 17 states restrict absentee voting to people who have disabilities, who are ill or who would be out of town on Election Day.
Several states have begun lifting restrictions on mail-in voting, opening the process to people who may have fears of exposure to the highly infectious virus.
Among them is Alabama, which postponed until July 14 its March 31 runoff in the Republican election for U.S. Senate. The July date would give officials time to process absentee ballots, and it’s the last day the state could hold an election without interrupting the November general election, according to Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill.
“That spreads out the work for them,” Merrill said in an interview, “enabling the voters more time to have their voices heard and votes counted.”
Alabama is one of the 17 with restrictions on absentee voting, normally requiring a voter be absent from their home county on Election Day, be ill or have a physical disability, have a job during voting hours or be a caregiver for a family member. But like his peers around the country, Merrill, a Republican, chose to allow any eligible voter in the state to vote absentee because of virus concerns.
“In light of the situation, we want to make sure this election is as free, fair and safe for all voters as we can,” said Jennifer Gardner, deputy press secretary of West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican. “We understand the health risk here, and we’re taking that very seriously.”
But not every state is lifting restrictions.
Some are going in the opposite direction: Kentucky’s GOP-dominated legislature last week passed a new voter ID law that goes into effect before the November election. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has not said whether he’ll sign the bill, but he has said he doesn’t want to make voting more difficult. Republicans have the numbers to override a veto.
In Missouri, which allows only voters who meet specific criteria to vote by mail, officials last week pushed the state’s municipal elections from April 7 to June 2. But Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft told Stateline that he is bound by state law and will not expand mail-in, absentee voting.
“This is not something I can change,” he said. “For certain election authorities, even if I could, which I cannot, they are not prepared and set up and able to do that well.”
Ashcroft will consult with local election officials and state lawmakers to determine whether to change state election laws before November. He said he’s willing to consider changes but doesn’t want to rush to solutions that could lead to unintended voting disruptions.
In other states with restrictions, there is a strong push to open the absentee process amid this emergency, including in Connecticut, Indiana and Rhode Island. And it’s not just states that have restrictions on mail-in voting. States such as Arizona, Idaho and Kansas, which don’t require an excuse to vote absentee, also are encouraging voters to cast mail-in ballots.
This renewed support for expanding absentee ballot access has encouraged officials at the Democratic National Committee, as the party continues to manage a presidential primary season that is slated to run through June. States need to take every precaution to make sure every voter can participate safely, said Ken Martin, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. That includes expanding mail-in voting.