WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Ranking Member of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Election Assistance Commission, joined U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) to introduce legislation that would ensure Americans are still able to vote by expanding early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states. The legislation comes as confusion surrounded whether Ohio’s primary would take place this week and following announcements by Louisiana and Georgia officials that they are postponing their April presidential primaries.
“Access to the ballot box is core to our democracy. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt Americans’ lives, we need to ensure that everyone is still able to exercise their constitutional right to vote in the midst of this crisis,” said Senator Coons. “Voters will be electing the leaders who will manage the aftermath of this pandemic. By expanding early in-person voting and voting by mail, Americans across the country will still be able to participate in upcoming elections without risking their health and safety.”
Natural disasters and public health emergencies are occurring more frequently and with greater impact than ever before, affecting the ability of victims and first responders to vote on Election Day. The lack of voting options and sufficient emergency ballot procedures can leave voters disenfranchised. COVID-19, hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the wildfires in the Western United States are recent examples of the damage and disruption that public health emergencies and natural disasters can cause. We have already seen limited incidences of poll workers not showing up on Election Day this year due to fears of the coronavirus. The recent tornadoes in Tennessee on Super Tuesday also greatly impacted voting in the state. With fears of catching the coronavirus, the priority must be to reduce the number of people voting in person at any given time, by allowing for early voting and for all people to be able to vote from their homes using vote-by-mail.
Emergencies in the proximity of an election day can have a lasting impact as polling places deal with flooding, lack of power, or other unsafe conditions. The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act represents a commonsense solution to ensure that the 2020 elections, and future elections, are resilient to emergencies, as well as the protection of voting rights of those in harm’s way and emergency responders.
In addition to Coons, Klobuchar, and Wyden, Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tina Smith (D-MN), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Doug Jones (D-AL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Gary Peters (D-MI), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Mark Warner (D-VA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are cosponsors.
The bill would specifically:
· Ensure that voters in all states have 20 days of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail and ensure states begin processing votes cast during early voting or vote-by-mail 14 days before Election Day to avoid delays in counting votes on Election Day.
· Guarantee that all voter registration applications submitted by mail or online at least 21 days prior to Election Day are deemed valid. Allow any state to have a deadline that is closer to Election Day.
· Require states and jurisdictions to establish a publicly available contingency plan to enable eligible Americans to vote in the case of an emergency and establish an initiative to improve the safety of voters and poll workers and recruit poll workers from high schools and colleges as well as from other State and local government offices.
· Provide all voters with the option of online requests for absentee ballots and require states to accept requests received at least 5 days prior to Election Day. Allow any state to have a deadline that is closer to Election Day.
· Guarantee the counting of absentee ballots postmarked or signed before the close of the polls on Election Day and received on or before the 10 days following Election Day.
· Ensure states provide self-sealing envelopes with prepaid postage for all voters who request a voter registration application, absentee ballot application, or an absentee ballot.
· Require states to offer their downloadable and printable absentee ballots under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) to domestic voters who requested but did not receive an absentee ballot for the 2020 election and to voters with disabilities who requested an absentee ballot and reside in a state that does not offer secure accessible remote ballot marking.
· Charge the Election Assistance Commission with creating a uniform domestic downloadable and printable absentee ballot that can be used starting in 2022.
· Direct all states that do not already use ballot tracking systems to use envelopes with an Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) to allow voters to track their ballot for the 2020 general election and successive elections until a state implements a domestic ballot update service.
· Charge the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in consultation with the General Services Administration (GSA), Election Assistance Commission, and the United States Postal Service to create a domestic ballot update service for election officials to provide voters with updates on their ballot for the 2024 election and beyond.
· Ensure states implement a specified signature curing procedure to allow voters the opportunity to address a signature mismatch.
· Provide additional accommodations for Native American voters including allowing tribes to designate ballot pickup and drop-off locations and not requiring a residential address for election mail.
· Authorize funds necessary to reimburse states for the cost of implementing the Act, such as providing additional absentee ballots and prepaid postage, and purchasing additional ballot scanners and absentee ballot drop boxes.
· Authorize funds necessary to reimburse states for the cost of developing or purchasing and implementing secure remote ballot marking to enable voters with disabilities to mark their ballots at home and vote by mail.
· Provide $3 million in additional funds to the Election Assistance Commission for supporting states in implementing the Act.