Around the country, election officials trying to ensure ballot access and protect public health in upcoming contests face an increasingly coordinated backlash from the right. Much of the onslaught of litigation has been funded by the Republican National Committee, which has sought to block emergency measures related to covid-19, such as proactively mailing ballots to voters sheltering at home.
“I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting,” Trump, who voted absentee in New York in 2018, said at a news conference Friday, offering no examples. “I think people should vote [in person] with voter ID. I think voter ID is very important, and the reason they don’t want voter ID is because they intend to cheat.”
Democrats and their allies in the civil rights community are also seizing the moment, arguing that the current crisis has created an urgent need for many of the voting policies they have pushed for years, including mass expansion of mail balloting and relaxation of voter ID, signature and witness requirements.
With tense legislative and legal fights underway in three key states — and fresh battle lines being drawn in at least a dozen more — the viral outbreak has intensified a long-running partisan fight over ballot access into a battle now playing out on multiple fronts.
The latest action occurred Saturday in Wisconsin, where Republican lawmakers who gathered for a special legislative session rebuffed pleas from Gov. Tony Evers (D), voting advocates, election officials and even a federal judge to cancel in-person voting scheduled for Tuesday and extend the deadline for mail-in ballots.
“Republicans in the Legislature are playing politics with public safety and ignoring the urgency of this public health crisis,” Evers said in statement Saturday evening. “It’s wrong. No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote.”
The RNC is expected to spend more than $10 million on legal battles related to voting this year and is involved in lawsuits in Minnesota, Michigan, Arizona, Florida and New Mexico, in addition to Wisconsin.
Party officials said their efforts are driven broadly by concerns that looser rules could lead to fraud.
“Our position is really about protecting the integrity of the process,” said RNC chief counsel Justin Riemer, who is helping to coordinate litigation at the state level. “The paramount concern is not on whether they help us win. … Our views on these issues are based on principle.”
Some in the party have also publicly acknowledged concerns that higher voter turnout would harm the GOP’s electoral fortunes — including those of the president himself.
Late last month, Trump said a proposal by House Democrats to expand mail balloting “had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The Georgia House speaker, Republican David Ralston, offered a similar view this week, saying that an expansion of absentee voting would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”
Later, Ralston sought to clarify his remarks, saying absentee voting is more prone to fraud.
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said such comments reveal that the “facade” is falling away for Republicans, revealing a “brazen desire to restrict access to voting.”
“That’s dangerous,” she said. “It’s just dangerous when we’re not even pretending to adhere to our country’s core democratic principles. … When those get challenged by our leaders, they erode.”
Within the GOP, there is some apprehension that seeking to block attempts to make voting safer during a pandemic could backfire. With millions of Americans fearing for their safety and hoping to vote by mail in upcoming primaries and the general election in November, GOP resistance could thwart their own voters as much as it does Democrats.
“I understand they want to win elections, but it’s not clear to me that we gain advantage,” said Republican Trey Grayson, the former secretary of state of Kentucky. “I also worry about the signal that it sends because there are people who are bothered by this. We look as a party like we don’t care.”
On the local and state levels, efforts to relax rules around voting do not break easily along party lines. Of the 18 states that have taken steps to ease absentee voting in response to coronavirus, many have Republican governors or secretaries of state. And of the six states that have promised to proactively mail absentee ballot request forms to eligible voters, five are deep red.
Still, national party officials have argued that efforts to expand voting access are not needed now in response to coronavirus. They say that could change, depending on the course of the pandemic.
However, voting administrators say they are running out of time to expand mail voting for November.
Tensions are high in Wisconsin, where voters and poll workers have expressed fears about risking their health to participate in Tuesday’s primaries and municipal elections. In Milwaukee, election administrators planned to open only five voting sites instead of the usual 180.
Republican leaders have argued that moving the date would sow confusion, but their opponents say Republicans are seeking to take advantage of the low turnout most officials expect on Tuesday to help them win a closely contested race for a state Supreme Court seat.
The Wisconsin Senate’s majority leader, Republican Scott L. Fitzgerald, said last year that lower turnout would give Justice Daniel Kelly a “better chance” of winning a new term on the court.
Last month, GOP lawmakers rejected a proposal from Evers to send a mail ballot to every voter and waive photo ID and witness requirements. At the time, Evers did not seek to cancel in-person voting despite health officials’ predictions of a wave of new infections across the state during the first two weeks of April.
Republicans are also fighting U.S. District Judge William M. Conley’s decision Thursday to extend the receipt deadline for mail ballots to April 13 and to allow voters to forgo a witness requirement if they are unable to find witnesses.
On Friday, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld Conley’s ruling regarding the receipt deadline but granted a stay that blocks the counting of ballots with no witness signature. GOP legislative leaders on Saturday filed an appeal of the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Although Conley declined Democrats’ and election officials’ request that he cancel in-person voting Tuesday, he admonished both Evers and lawmakers for not doing it themselves.
“Wisconsin is obviously the real canary in the coal mine here that we’re all concerned about,” NYU’s Weiser said. “Seeing the breakdown there in the Wisconsin legislature is a warning sign and something that raises significant concerns.”
Republicans in New Mexico are staking out similar territory, with the state GOP filing a lawsuit this week to block an effort by county clerks to hold the state’s June primary by mail. GOP leaders suggested that the switch would lead to voter fraud.
In North Carolina, Republicans are opposing recommendations from the State Board of Elections to ease absentee voting restrictions, including a requirement for signatures from two witnesses or a notary.
The debate is complicated by the fact that those rules were enacted just last year, on a nearly unanimous vote, following an explosive ballot fraud investigation that prompted North Carolina officials to discard the results in a congressional race and repeat the election. Among other irregularities, campaign operatives were accused of illegally collecting, forging and turning in absentee ballots.
“In the very last election, there was fraud that took place. There was fraud here,” said the state’s Senate president, Republican Phil Berger, in an interview. “What responsible leader would want to go back to the policies that allowed that to take place?”
While some Republicans may be taking advantage of the moment for political gain, Berger said, Democrats are doing the same — and, in some cases, he said, trying to enable fraud for political gain.
Yet resistance to loosening the rules could make it difficult — if not impossible — for some voters to cast ballots at a time when many communities are under orders not to congregate. Voting rights advocates say the risk is profound in urban areas with unreliable mail service, and among African American voters, whose forebears shed blood for the right to vote and who are mistrustful of mailing a ballot rather than feeding it directly into a tabulating machine.
Elderly voters self-isolating with underlying health issues fall into the risk category too, with greater likelihood of struggling with an unfamiliar process or being unable to find a witness, experts said.
The voting challenges created by the pandemic come during a pivotal presidential election that already faces a range of threats, including reported attempts by foreign powers to interfere in the campaign.
The coronavirus first collided with the Democratic primary process on March 3, following the first hints of a U.S. outbreak, when election officials in Super Tuesday states began providing hand sanitizer for voters.
In the intervening month, initial small steps to protect the public’s health have given way to primary delays in 17 states and a reinvigorated push by Senate Democrats to offer funding for vote-by-mail systems around the country.
The recently passed stimulus bill included $400 million of funding to support state election officials during the pandemic, a far cry from the $2 billion to $4 billion some advocates say is needed to prepare for November.