The new House Democratic bill is massive — it includes strict conditions on corporations that accept bailout funds and beefs up paid sick leave and direct cash payments to Americans, among other things — but for our purposes here, what’s notable is the pro-democracy piece of the package.
That pro-democracy piece, according to a summary of the bill being circulated by House Democratic aides, contains these provisions:
- It mandates that states and jurisdictions set up a process by which any eligible voter can vote by mail if he or she chooses — and would not require voters to give any rationale for doing so. Such voters would be provided with a postage-prepaid, self-sealing envelope.
- If any state or jurisdiction declares an emergency, they would be required to automatically mail absentee ballots to all registered voters, no later than two weeks before Election Day.
- It requires states and jurisdictions to implement at least 15 consecutive days of early voting in federal elections.
- It mandates that states and jurisdictions create a same-day voter registration option for all eligible voters.
- It budgets $4 billion for states to implement these changes, in keeping with a recent Brennan Center analysis that recommended that any coronavirus response legislation include at least $2 billion to protect the election.
That’s robust stuff. Rick Hasen, the voting law scholar who just published a book about worst-case scenarios in this fall’s elections, told me that a vote-by-mail mandate like this one should be the central pillar of any agenda safeguarding our democracy against disruptions from a pandemic such as coronavirus.
“Requiring states to offer vote-by-mail in November is essential,” Hasen said. “We don’t know what conditions are going to be like, and vote-by-mail is a safety net. While two-thirds of states offer no-excuse absentee balloting, that means one-third do not, and that millions of voters face potential disenfranchisement in the fall.”
However, Hasen argued it isn’t necessary for this legislation to make these changes permanent — as it does — because it might be easier to secure GOP support if they only apply to this fall’s election. Protecting against mass chaos amid this particular pandemic is the crucial imperative, Hasen noted.
“The important thing now is making sure that millions of voters are not disenfranchised in November,” Hasen said. “The message to Republicans should be: Millions of your voters may be disenfranchised too if they cannot get to or are afraid to get to the polls.”
While this bill is good news, we should be clear on this point: We simply don’t know how hard Democrats will fight to ensure that these democracy protections remain in the legislation, once negotiations get into a very bruising phase.
Though Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have introduced their own vote-by-mail bill, it’s not clear whether Senate Democrats are prepared to insist that such a measure is included in the Senate stimulus package, which is currently being negotiated, with both parties now in open warfare and no clear compromise in sight.
Some have called on Democrats to refuse to agree to any stimulus spending without these protections for the elections, on the theory that they must use their leverage to safeguard our democracy at all costs.
Hasen, for his part, noted that if Democrats do end up giving ground on a national vote-by-mail mandate, at an absolute minimum they must still continue to insist on expanded federal funding for states. That’s because we know that if the coronavirus is still a serious threat, far more voters will avail themselves of vote-by-mail in states that already have it, and that will cost a lot more money.
Expanded funding would also allow states that don’t already have vote-by-mail the means to ramp it up themselves if they so choose. “What should be nonnegotiable in any bill is funding for vastly increased absentee balloting,” Hasen said.
At bottom, what’s at stake here is whether Democrats can prevail on Republicans and President Trump to agree with this principle: A bedrock requirement in ensuring that we get through this pandemic without too much damage should be that we do all we can to prevent serious disruptions to our free and fair elections.
Will Trump and Republicans assent to this proposition? We’ll soon find out.