As we have witnessed in the postponement of Democratic presidential primary elections, the coronavirus creates a huge challenge for free and fair elections. While a primary can be rescheduled, the presidential election in November (as well as House, Senate, state and local elections) cannot be postponed. The obvious solution is widespread voting by mail and early voting (so that voters can be spaced out and avoid close proximity to others) in the event coronavirus remains a health threat. Congress took a small step in the right direction with the stimulus bill.

Roll Call reports: “The enormous spending bill expected to be released Wednesday morning will include $400 million in election assistance, according to two sources who have seen a summary of the bill from appropriators.” That sounds like a lot of money, but that “is still a fraction of the $2 billion the Brennan Center for Justice estimated is necessary for states to prepare for a surge of voters casting ballots by mail and to ensure safe in-person voting.”

As the nonpartisan organization Issue One, which promotes democracy and has lobbied vigorously for funding for the states, said in a written statement, “Congress has just made a solid downpayment on making the 2020 elections safe, secure, and fair.” The statement explained, “While it falls short of the amount Senator Amy Klobuchar had pushed for, it will help states get started as soon as possible on ensuring every eligible American is able to participate in the November elections through early voting and vote-by-mail.” The group encourages a “more robust conversation between secretaries of state and Congress about the need for more resources in future stimulus bills.”

Republicans have been hesitant to adopt voting by mail, some for legitimate reasons and others as part of their never-ending quest to suppress likely Democratic voters. But now, concern about November elections is bipartisan. Michael Steele, former head of the Republican National Committee, and Eli Lehrer, head of the libertarian think tank R Street, write in the conservative Washington Times:

Studies of all-mail-in elections — the default in five states and sometimes allowed in 17 others — show that they increase overall turnout as well as turnout from more liberal-leaning young and African-American voters. At the same time, vote-by-mail also increases turnout from people in rural areas and older Americans, groups that tend to lean right. In November, when there’s a very real chance that circumstances may keep many seniors away from the polls, the system might well deliver Republicans a net advantage.

They argue that if “staunchly conservative Utah can make the switch to vote-by-mail, as it will do this year, other right-leaning states should consider it.”

Regardless, states will be under huge financial pressure due to the coronavirus, and federal funds will cover only part of the costs. With health care, unemployment, education and an array of social services in dire need of funds, it will be tempting for states to put voting by mail on the back burner.

But there is little time to prepare. As the Brennan Center explained, “We will need substantial modifications to our election procedures, substantial flexibility, and a substantial infusion of resources to ensure that every eligible American can register and vote safely, securely, accessibly, and as conveniently as possible; to ensure that every ballot cast by an eligible voter counts; to maintain the security of the election; and to ensure the safety of election workers.”

This means if states do not already make widespread use of early voting, “significant infusion of resources is needed to expand flexible early voting, allow for ballots on demand in states that choose to offer early voting at vote centers, and implement technologies, like online wait time apps, that can help direct voters to locations with the shortest lines.” With regard to voting by mail, states will have to secure printing facilities, secure paper ballots, arrange for additional tabulators, decide upon signature match procedures and handle hundreds of other details.

Given that states may be hampered in performing all of these tasks due to the coronavirus and social distancing, it is essential to secure funds and at least begin planning for alternatives to voting in person. The $400 million is just a start. If federal and state funds are not available, why don’t billionaires who found the resources to promote their own candidacy step up to the plate to award grants to states that need help to protect November voting? That would be a real contribution to the preservation of American democracy.

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