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U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates are working to ensure that every eligible American voter has the ability to participate in democracy, even during a pandemic. We’re calling on states to start preparing now to ensure safe elections in November, including emergency expansion of vote by mail, sanitized and socially-distant polling places and other measures.
This weekly update highlights the work we’re doing on the COVID-19 voting front, and other important developments in the news. If you have questions or comments, please email Joe Ready (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Ross Sherman (email@example.com).
House Democrats introduced a coronavirus funding bill, The Heroes Act, that would dedicate $3.6 billion in additional funding to state election officials to help them prepare for holding elections during a pandemic. The bill is expected to be voted on Friday. Experts estimate that states would need $4 billion dollars in funding to hold successful elections during COVID-19.
In other national news, Business Insider published a piece Tuesday making the point that because so many more people are expected to vote by mail, we might not know the results of the November elections on Election Day. While that point may seem obvious, it’s important to begin setting the expectations that it may take days or weeks to count ballots and determine final results. The priority should be making elections as accessible, safe and secure as possible amid a dangerous pandemic.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last Friday that California would become a vote-by-mail state for this November’s general election. The state was transitioning in that direction anyway, but given the likelihood that COVID-19 will present some risk to this year’s election, they’re speeding up the process. Specifically, the governor issued an executive order tasking the secretary of state with mailing every registered voter a ballot while maintaining a critical base of in-person voting locations. CALPIRG Executive Director Emily Rusch applauded the move, saying it was “a no brainer for safe, secure elections in November.”
Our state affiliate Maryland PIRG participated in a panel Wednesday that outlined the changes that have been made to upcoming elections in light of COVID-19, and other efforts to ensure that every voter has the information they need to cast their ballots safely. Robust public education will be critical for helping voters navigate changing electoral systems. The state held a special election on April 28 to fill a Congressional seat, and set a strong example for how states across the country can hold an election during a pandemic.
Nebraska held its primary elections Tuesday with little fanfare, demonstrating the basic steps states need to take to ensure safe voting during COVID-19. Gov. Pete Ricketts and Secretary of State Robert Evnen, both Republicans, decided early to send all registered voters an absentee ballot request. That, in addition to actively encouraging voters to return the application, has already resulted in a higher turnout than the last two primaries -- and that’s before we count the votes cast on Election Day. Nebraska’s neighbor to the South, Kansas, saw a similar dynamic happen in its Democratic primary election just a couple weeks before.
More than 30 municipalities held vote-by-mail elections Tuesday, as Gov. Phil Murphy continues to assess how the state’s primary election will play out in July. While the final results are still being tallied, it’s clear that the state should take what it learns from this election and encourage as much voting by mail as possible for the primary.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week that state election officials are seeking approval to cut the number of polling places for the June 2 primary by 60 percent or deploy the national guard to address the shortage of poll workers due to COVID-19. This is a problem we’re seeing play out in states across the country, because poll workers, who tend to be older, are more at risk if they get the virus. While the health of our poll workers should be a priority, decreasing the number of in-person voting locations doesn’t solve the problem -- it just creates more crowding. States will need to maintain a critical mass of in-person polling places. They should start recruiting now, and from less vulnerable populations, to sufficiently and safely staff the locations.
State lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday which allows all voters to request a mail-in absentee ballot for the June 9 primary election. This gives voters who are able to vote from home a safer option, and helps reduce crowding at polling places on Election Day. The state -- and all states, for that matter -- should also consider taking this action for the November election.
U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.
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