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Discussions and negotiations continue about how much money to dedicate to safeguarding voting systems during COVID-19. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) said this week that he expected the next Congressional relief package to include additional money to help states run elections. The CARES Act passed by Congress and signed into law in March appropriated $400 million dollars for elections, which falls far short of what experts say is needed.
Meanwhile, in primaries that have already taken place and those that are set to happen next Tuesday, we’re seeing huge spikes in the use of vote-by-mail. Given the shift to mail-in-voting, politicians, media outlets and others need to take proactive steps to increase confidence in our elections. That includes setting expectations that we likely won’t know the results on Election Night.
Unfortunately, whether it was the press secretary or the president himself, the White House continued putting out false information about mail-in voting this week. The ongoing incorrect statements from President Trump prompted Twitter to flag and fact check some of his Tweets. It’s unacceptable, yet unsurprising at this point, that President Trump is creating confusion around participating in democracy amid the public health crisis.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign an expansion of vote by mail into law, following the bill’s passage in the Illinois Legislature last week. The legislation, which our state affiliate Illinois PIRG supported, will make Election Day a state holiday, automatically send absentee ballot request forms to people who voted in the last three elections, and create an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots, among other positive changes.
In an effort to educate voters and get them excited about upcoming elections, a coalition of groups in Baltimore launched a campaign called “Party at the Mailbox.” Maryland will hold its presidential primary election next Tuesday, June 2. Because of COVID-19, the primary is being conducted primarily by mail, with limited in-person voting options on Election Day. In late April, the state also held a special election primarily by mail, showing that with early decisive action it’s possible to hold accessible and safe elections during the pandemic.
Our partners at the Student PIRGs recently launched an effort in Michigan (PIRGIM Students) to register and educate young voters for the August primaries and the November general election. This comes on the heels of Michigan’s secretary of state announcing last week that mail-in ballot applications would be sent to every registered voter statewide. And following the lead of the recent Supreme Court case, a lawsuit was filed this week arguing that the state must count all votes that are postmarked before Election Day, even if they aren’t received by the time the polls close.
A bipartisan bill that would remove some obstacles to voting by mail is making its way quickly through the North Carolina Legislature. Specifically, if passed, HB 1169 allows people to request absentee ballots from home by email or fax, decreases the amount of witnesses required from two to one, and mandates new technology to help voters track their ballot. While these are certainly modest steps forward, there is more the state can do to ensure safer voting during COVID-19.
In the latest court decision concerning vote by mail in the state, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that COVID-19 was not a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot. In response to the pandemic, many states that previously only had “excuse” absentee voting are now allowing any voter concerned for their health to get a ballot mailed to them. Texas still hasn’t taken that step. As TexPIRG’s Lauren Banister said in the Austin American-Statesman this week, “A simple way to ensure polling locations are safe is reduce the number of people who need to show up on election day.”
The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to send absentee ballot applications for the general election to registered voters who have not yet requested a ballot. This is a significant step forward for the state, and demonstrates lessons learned in the wake of a partisan debacle that resulted in unsafe elections earlier this spring.
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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