That same conversation, with the same fear and suspicion, is happening in nearly every state. Just five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — were planning before the start of the coronavirus pandemic to conduct November's elections with all-mail ballots. Voting rights groups and many Democrats have pointed to vote-by-mail as the most workable solution if in-person voting is a health risk.
But the very fact that Democrats support these changes has raised Republicans' skepticism and heightened their opposition. Taking cues from the president, who warned this week that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if Democrats' reforms were adopted, some conservatives argue that expanding vote-by-mail is a liberal scheme. Anything that made it into H.R. 1, the House Democrats' package of voting reforms that has been ignored by the Republican-run Senate, is immediately suspect.
“These rules were all intended to basically make it easier to manipulate elections, and frankly, make it easier to cheat,” Hans von Spakovsky, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation's election law project, said in an interview with Breitbart News. “They have absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with helping the country deal with the coronavirus.”
Von Spakovsky, who has been criticized for overhyping the risks of voter fraud, spoke for many Republicans. If nothing changes before November, the election and the primaries still being held between now and then will be held in wildly divergent conditions from state to state. None of the states that conduct all-mail voting are seen as competitive in this year's presidential election, and the debate about one party fighting for partisan advantage has not squared with their own experience. In fact, for years, rules expanding the use of absentee ballots were seen as favoring Republicans.
“Being a very red state, we haven’t seen anything that helps one party over another at all,” said Justin Lee, who has been Utah's director of elections for three years as vote-by-mail was implemented. “We've heard less concern about voter fraud than about whether every ballot that should get counted does get counted.”
Of the eight states expected to be see the closest races — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — only the first two have a robust absentee ballot tradition. New Hampshire requires voters who want an absentee ballot to declare that they will be at work, out of the state or unwell or that they have some religious exemption from in-person voting, while the seven other states have no special requirement.
Seven of the eight swing states have something else in common: divided governments. In Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Democratic governors are frequently at odds with Republican-run legislatures. (In Minnesota, Republicans control the state Senate, while Democrats control the House.) For Wisconsin, that meant Gov. Tony Evers's proposal to send postage-paid absentee ballots to voters was dead on arrival, with the Republican speaker of the House calling it an “invitation to voter fraud.”
In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu contests with a Democratic-run General Court and has vetoed several attempts to make voting easier. In Arizona, Republicans control most of state government, minus the secretary of state's office; in Florida, they run every element of the election process.
For the past few weeks, elections officials across the country have been talking frequently, sharing best practices and sometimes walking through the vote-by-mail process. The National Association of State Election Directors had been holding weekly conference calls, and Kim Wyman, the Republican serving as Washington's secretary of state, said her office had been in touch with officials in every other state, answering questions about vote-by-mail logistics.
They had demystified vote-by-mail's anti-fraud measures, explaining that ballot envelopes must be signed, that county clerks call voters if there are problems with their ballots, and that they've been able to chase down the few cases where people voted twice. In Washington's last election, 4.4 million ballots were cast but fewer than 100 ballots were flagged and none led to a criminal fraud investigation. Voter fraud remains rare, with high-profile cases representing a tiny fraction of votes cast each year.
Yet so far, in legislatures, the debate over adjusting voting systems to deal with the pandemic has broken across partisan lines. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, called for universal vote-by-mail on March 18, one day after the state's presidential primary. Republicans were skeptical, with state Rep. T.J. Shope telling the Arizona Republic that he saw “[an] appetite on the other side to take advantage of a crisis and do things they've been trying to get done for a very long time.”
Conservative pressure kept vote-by-mail out of last month's coronavirus response package an succeeded in reducing funding that Democrats wanted for a switch to that system from $2 billion to $400 million. According to Wyman, vote- by-mail saved money in some ways, such as giving disabled voters a ballot instead of prepping every polling place for disabled access, but the pandemic is going to pile on more costs.
“King County, where Seattle is, has a great facility for counting votes,” Wyman explained. “But they have hundreds of people shoulder-to-shoulder processing ballots. Even our most well-resourced and -financed county is going to have some big things to overcome.”
The cost has driven less conservative concern, so far, than the very idea of sending out millions of ballots. Just last year, North Carolina threw out the results of a close congressional election in which a Republican operative had taken absentee ballots and filled them out, a story that local Republicans now cite to oppose looser vote-by-mail laws. (The operative wound up in court.) In New Mexico, which the Trump campaign considers a potential 2020 target, 27 of the state’s 33 county clerks asked the state Supreme Court to allow mail voting, and Republicans opposed them.
John Fund, a conservative journalist and author of the book “Stealing Elections,” has written frequently about whether absentee voting risks election integrity, and has talked with legislators in “half a dozen” states since the pandemic and the vote-by-mail debate began. It was possible, he said, for states to expand mail voting over the next seven months and put in safeguards. But he asked whether the risk of ballots being lost in the mail would throw doubt on the results.
“We have examples like Michigan in 2016 and Florida in 2000, where if the election had been conducted by mail, and a few stray envelopes didn’t make it, you'd have been talking about court cases going on forever,” Fund said.
Most states that don't conduct mail-only elections are unlikely to put those systems in place over the next few months, something that would require millions of dollars and emergency legislation. But there is plenty of room and time to make absentee voting easier. New Hampshire, for example, is one of 17 states that requires some kind of excuse for requesting an absentee ballot. Some states, like Wisconsin, have only now stepped up to inform voters that they can vote by mail, a process that has seen absentee requests quadruple over four years ago.
But Wisconsin's Republican legislators, like their colleagues in many states, have resisted calls to delay the election. The primary this coming Tuesday is showcasing all of the problems with pandemic-era, in-person voting, starting with a mass exodus of the volunteers who usually run the polling locations. And all of it had to contend with paranoia about how absentee voting would affect the outcome of the election.
“Voting by mail has not ever been thought of as a liberal plot,” said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, which supports greater voting access. “It’s been innovated in many places by Republicans. The criticism you're hearing now seems like a knee-jerk partisan response, because Democrats were first out of the gate on making this universal.”
This originally misidentified the party of Kim Wyman, Washington's secretary of state. It has been corrected.
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In the states
As Wisconsin's April 7 primary gets closer, the criticism of Republican leaders for refusing to delay it grows louder and louder. The Democrats still expecting to have an election that day are urging voters to be careful and get absentee ballots.
Like every swing state in the Midwest, Wisconsin now has a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature who struggle to agree on anything. The legislature sets elections, and it backed off last year on the idea of moving the Democratic primary to an earlier date. The reason: The state will elect a Supreme Court justice April 7, and Republicans worried that if Democrats turned out at higher rates, the seat would be lost, a premise Democrats agreed with.
As the pandemic's scale become obvious, neither side could agree on what to do. Republicans shot down a proposal to mail every voter a ballot; Gov. Tony Evers (D) did not test his emergency powers to set a new election. (That was more or less what Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) did, postponing the March 17 election and leaving it up to legislators to find a new date, though Wisconsin Republicans have been limiting the governor's powers since his surprise victory two years ago.)
“We have three branches of government to ensure a system of checks and balances, and questions about our elections typically rely on all three playing a role,” Evers tweeted this week. “If I could have changed the election on my own, I would have, but I can’t without violating state law.” And at a Wednesday court hearing, the presiding judge put the onus of moving the election on the governor and legislature, suggesting that he would not move it.
The Biden and Sanders campaigns have proceeded cautiously. Joe Biden's campaign has urged voters to request absentee ballots ahead of the deadline, originally today, emphasizing that message with a video from the candidate's wife, Jill Biden. Bernie Sanders has urged the state to delay the primary, though his statement did not single out the governor or the legislature for blame; at the same time, he has urged supporters to vote for Jill Karofsky, the Democratic-backed candidate in the judicial election.
A court ruled Thursday that the absentee ballot request deadline could be extended by 24 hours, to 5 p.m. Friday, and that ballots received by April 13 would be counted.
Meanwhile, the May primary calendar got a little lighter when West Virginia pushed its date back to June 9, as late as it can go without running into DNC sanctions. (As we’ve been reporting, it is possible and even likely that the DNC will remove sanctions for late primaries, though it has not done so yet.)
“I was hopeful and supportive of having the election May 12, but it’s clear now that is the wrong thing to do,” Gov. Jim Justice (R) said Wednesday.
Justice, a billionaire who won in 2016 as a Democrat, switched parties before the end of his first year in office. He faces six challengers in the primary, though none have raised a substantial amount of money — and none rallied onstage with the president as Justice did three years ago.
West Virginia’s move followed the decisions of leaders in Indiana and Kentucky to delay their May primaries and leaves just three states holding regularly scheduled contests next month, in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oregon. (Georgia pushed its primary from March to mid-May, and Hawaii expects to count votes from its April context next month.)
All are holding mail-only contests, with Kansas Democrats replacing their caucus with the new system, Nebraska invoking a state law that allows each county to conduct elections through the mail, and Oregon having switched to mail-only elections years ago.
Four years ago, all three of those states went to Sanders, with the independent senator from Vermont winning a combined 74 of 119 pledged delegates. But he has struggled this year in states that replaced their caucuses with primaries, losing three states that he had won easily under that old system: Maine, Minnesota and Washington.
Kathaleen Wall, “China.” The White House has largely stopped trying to brand the coronavirus a “Chinese virus,” a cause that had become limited to conservative media. But Wall, a wealthy conservative making her second run for Congress is all in, with an ad that describes China as a “criminal enterprise” and promises that she will stand alongside the president to fight it. The ad has already been denounced by Sri Preston Kulkarni, her Democratic opponent in Texas's 22nd District, which has grown less Republican in large part thanks to an influx of Asian immigrants.
Wisconsin primary (Marquette, 380 likely voters)
Joe Biden: 62% (+47)
Bernie Sanders: 34% (+5)
Wisconsin's gold-standard pollster has found close contests in the general election for months, and until this poll, it found Sanders ahead of a scrambled primary field. But as in other states, the collapse of that field has been brutal for Sanders. Biden, who had not campaigned in Wisconsin before the pandemic shut down traditional events, easily absorbed the support for most of the candidates who dropped out. Four years ago, the same poll slightly underrated Sanders's strength in the state, giving him a four-point lead over Hillary Clinton right before his 14-point win.
The virtual campaign trail got more heated this week, with President Trump’s campaign publishing a faked Web video in an effort to shame Joe Biden out of running an ad that used the president's words against him.
“The media is giving a pass to a pro-Biden TV ad that doctors and deceptively edits audio of President Trump, even though every independent fact-checker said President Trump DID NOT call the coronavirus a hoax,” Trump's campaign tweeted. Its video spliced two separate Biden quotes together to make it sound like the former vice president called the virus a hoax.
At the center of this dispute: an ad that Biden didn't run and a video that he did. Priorities USA, a pro-Biden super PAC that can't coordinate with the candidate, ran a digital ad last month that cut two clips from Trump's Feb. 28 rally in North Charleston, in which he decried a “new hoax” — the idea that the spread of the coronavirus was his fault. Biden's campaign previously ran a video making the same cut.
Biden's response was to call for the Trump video to come down, with spokesman TJ Ducklo tweeting that “disinformation and deceptively manipulated media have no place in our public discourse, and must not be tolerated in this campaign.” The candidate himself, meanwhile, came out in favor of lifting sanctions on Iran during the pandemic, while calling for the Islamic Republic to “make a humanitarian gesture and allow detained American citizens to return home.”
Bernie Sanders was absent from that fray but appeared on ABC's “The View” and MSNBC's “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” telling both shows that he continued to “assess” the status of his campaign, but saw a “narrow” path to the nomination. He also continued urging Amazon to give benefits to workers straining under pandemic conditions and criticized the company for firing a warehouse employee named Chris Smalls after he called for better benefits. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
What I’m watching
As New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) basks in praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, he has picked a new fight with the Working Families Party, the left-wing organization whose ballot access is being threatened by a quickly passed state budget.
“No other state in the country has ballot requirements this strict,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, WFP's state director. “It's an effort to quiet opponents and weaken opposition in a moment of pure pandemonium. It feels like authoritarianism to us.”
At issue is New York's unique fusion voting system, which activists fought successfully against an election commission to save last year. Candidates can run with the backing of multiple parties, the votes for each ballot line being counted together. In 2018, for example, Cuomo won 3.4 million votes on the Democratic Party's line and an additional 114,478 votes on WFP's line. Under the old law, which required that parties win at least 50,000 votes to stay on the ballot, that was more than enough to protect WFP's status.
The new law throws that status into doubt. Parties now need 130,000 votes to keep ballot access, a number WFP has not hit in a statewide gubernatorial election since 2010. In 2018, the party was also hurt the Women's Equality Party, or WEP, which Cuomo created in 2014 and which WFP activists saw as an effort to confuse voters. Indeed, the combined vote for the WEP and WFP in 2018 was well over 130,000. Parties that miss the threshold will need to petition their way onto the ballot, and the budget tripled the signature requirement for petitions, from 15,000 to 45,000, at a time when gathering signatures has been made nearly impossible because of social distancing.
While the rule wouldn't go into effect until after this year's elections, third-party and fusion advocates have never gotten a satisfying rationale for the change.
Nnaemeka said that WFP would fight the new rules in court, and opponents had already won a previous case when an electoral reform commission tried to hike the vote and signature standards.
… five days until the Democratic primary in Wisconsin
… 68 days until the cutoff for choosing Democratic delegates
… 82 days until the final Democratic primary
102 137 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 144 days until the Republican National Convention
… 214 days until the general election