The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The brewing state battles over how to hold elections in a pandemic

An election volunteer disinfects a voting booth at a polling station in Milwaukee during that state's controversial in-person primary April 7. (Thomas Werner/Bloomberg News)

Wisconsin voters had to endure serious political drama as Democrats and Republicans in that state fought about whether to hold an election during the coronavirus pandemic. (The election ended up going forward in person, and Democrats surprised political watchers by winning a state Supreme Court seat.)

But Wisconsin won’t be the last state to have a knockout battle over voting. In nearly a dozen states, debates over how to hold summer primaries and runoffs and the big November election are just getting started.

Nationally, some trends are emerging:

  • Voting rights advocates worry that moving to all-mail voting will disenfranchise people with disabilities and those who don’t have a fixed address, like homeless people or college students.
  • Some Republican leaders are hesitant to relieve strict rules about absentee voting (like having a witness sign off on your ballot).
  • No group has been successful in asking the courts to step in and change how politicians set up elections.

Here’s an overview of some of the biggest brewing battles.

1. Texas: In March, Texas Democrats left failed negotiations with Republican leaders about whether to vote by mail and sued instead. They asked the courts to agree that avoiding the novel coronavirus was reason enough to request an absentee ballot and that voters should be able to list it under the “sickness or physical condition” statute of Texas’s strict absentee voter law, which requires an excuse for not voting in person.

Result: Later that month, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) postponed a May runoff — which will determine the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate — until July. When asked whether expanded mail voting for July and the November elections was a possibility, Abbott said “everything is on the table.”

2. Kentucky: This is one of many states with power split between the parties and brewing political drama over voting. The state already moved its primary to June but hasn’t decided whether to expand mail-in voting. On Monday, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) vetoed a measure by the Republican-controlled legislature that would require the Republican secretary of state to sign off on any changes Beshear made to how people vote. Beshear’s office said it “would limit his flexibility during this unprecedented time to respond decisively.” Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) called on the legislature to override the veto, saying he deserves to be consulted.

Beshear also vetoed a new voter-ID law, saying it would be difficult or impossible for people to get photo IDs in the middle of a pandemic.

Result: The legislature was in its final days of session Tuesday and Wednesday. Lawmakers already overrode Beshear’s veto on voter ID.

3. Maryland: This isn’t so much a partisan debate as a legal debate about whether changing to mail-in voting disenfranchises people with disabilities, such as those with impaired vision.

Maryland’s state election board originally proposed changing the April 28 congressional special election to all-mail voting but reversed itself after state Democratic leaders and voting rights advocates, including those for people with disabilities, said some in-person polling locations need to be open. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) also called into question whether federal and state law even allows eliminating all in-person voting.

Result: The April special congressional election will have some in-person voting and so, probably, will the June primary. “The number of voters who are going to need these voting centers is so small, and yet for them the voting center is such a big deal,” elections board member Kelley Howells told the Baltimore Sun.

4. Wisconsin, again: The state’s Supreme Court said Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) didn’t have the authority to unilaterally move last week’s primary. But what about a special congressional election? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Evers is “taking a close look” at delaying the May election for an open congressional seat, with his legal advisers saying this is not a regularly scheduled election and thus Evers has the authority to move it.

Result: We’ll see. Neither candidate wants the election to be delayed. The Republican in that race would prefer the vote go forward more or less as normal and accused Evers of “playing politics.” The Democratic candidate wants mostly mail-in voting.

5. Nevada: The state is having the same debate as Wisconsin but with the parties on opposite sides. Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske wants mostly to vote by mail in the June primary.

But Democrats are threatening to sue her for not allowing more in-person voting. (Las Vegas would have only one polling place, for example.) Nevada typically has a robust early-voting system, and nearly 90 percent of its voters do so in person. Democrats are worried people won’t understand how to vote by mail or that people who are displaced because of the coronavirus may not get their ballots. “Converting to an all-mail election in a matter of weeks represents a major departure for Nevada voters,” attorneys for the state Democratic Party wrote in a recent letter to Cegavske. Democrats also want her to mail ballots to all registered voters automatically, even those who haven’t voted recently.

Result: We’ll see. The Nevada Independent reports Cegavske has said it would cost more money to mail ballots to all registered voters and that expanding in-person polling places could threaten people’s safety.

6. Ohio: Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and the Republican-controlled legislature decided not to delay the state’s April 28 presidential primary (which was already delayed from March), instead attempting to set up an all-mail election. Voting rights groups sued, arguing there wasn’t enough time to ensure everyone got their ballots and warning “millions” could be disenfranchised.

Result: A federal court in Ohio ruled against delaying the primary further, saying it didn’t have standing to overthrow a unanimous decision by Ohio lawmakers on how to hold the primary: “The Constitution does not require the best plan, just a lawful one,” the judge wrote.

7. Alabama: It is one of a minority of states that require voters who request an absentee ballot to give a reason for doing so. There, the Republican governor and Republican secretary of state appear to be at odds about whether to eliminate that extra step. Secretary of State John Merrill supported a bill to get rid of it and advised voters they can check “illness” on their absentee application if they’re worried about contracting the coronavirus and want to vote by mail, reports AL.com.

Gov. Kay Ivey said she wants to keep the excuse requirement on absentee voting because she fears fraud otherwise. She will be voting by absentee in the July runoff, which will decide who will be the Republican U.S. Senate nominee.

Result: There doesn’t seem to be any significant challenge to Ivey’s position, so it’s possible Alabama’s limits on absentee ballots stay.

8. New Mexico: Democratic leaders have expanded absentee voting, but county election officials want to move to all-mail voting. So 27 of them have filed a petition to ask the state Supreme Court to allow them to do so. “If we don’t do something, people will die,” state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D) told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Result: On Tuesday, the state’s highest court said it could not order the state to do all-mail voting.

9. North Carolina: The state has some of the strictest absentee-voter regulations in the nation, requiring a voter to have two witnesses or a notary sign a mail-in ballot. The board of elections recommended eliminating that requirement for the November vote, but the state’s top Republican lawmaker, Senate leader Phil Berger, is opposed. The reason he cited in an interview with North Carolina radio station WFAE: Election fraud in 2018 with mail-in ballots that benefited a Republican candidate for Congress and ended up forcing a do-over election.

Result: To be determined.

10. Pennsylvania: Election leaders in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Tom Wolf (D) to let them hold the state’s June 2 primary entirely by mail.

Result: To be determined. Wolf’s office told local media outlets he’s evaluating how to expand voting by mail.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will probably challenge a key line of treatment for people with compromised immune systems — the drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

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