Monday, March 16, 2020

Texas Democrats Call For 100% Mail Ballot Voting

Gilberto Hinojosa, Chair of the Texas Democratic Party, sent a letter to the Texas Secretary of State proposing that Texas allow all eligible Texas voters to vote by mail as a public health saftey measure. In part, Chairman Hinojosa writes in his letter that, under the current and projected conditions involving COVID-19, it does not seem viable for Texas to hold meaningful elections in which all eligible voters can participate, if those elections involve [in-person] polling place-based voting. Many of the facilities typically used for polling places are closing down and the majority of our election workers are older adults who have now been advised by the CDC to remain at home in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19.

“The Texas Democratic Party calls for the Governor to immediately declare all mail-in ballot elections for May 2 and May 26,” Hinojosa writes. “This goes beyond party or politics, this is a matter of right and wrong.” An all-mail election, in which county election officials mail a ballot to every registered voter, is the only option that guarantees Texans’ right to vote while also protecting public health.”

Texas has one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail programs in the country. To receive a mail ballot voters must submit an application to their county election authority explicitly stating the reason they seek permission to be “excused” from voting in-person at a polling place. To be excused, voters must be older than 65, disabled, out of the county during the in-person voting period or in jail.

Colorado might serve as a model for Texas to adopt 100% Vote By Mail for coming elections in May and November. Colorado’s Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of May 2013 (H.B. 13-1303) mandated that mail ballots be sent to every registered voter for most elections; eliminated assigned polling places while establishing voter service and polling centers where any voter in a county can cast a ballot—either early or on Election Day; authorized in- person same-day registration; and shortened the state residency requirements for voter registration. The act changed how Colorado elections are administered, including:
  • Requiring that mail ballots be sent to all registered voters while still accommodating in-person voting before and on Election Day.
  • Directing counties to establish a minimum number—determined by the size of each county’s voting population—of voter service and polling centers (known as “vote centers” in many other states) where all eligible voters in the county can register to vote; update their voting information; cast their ballots, including provisional ballots when necessary; and drop off completed mail ballots.
  • Allowing in-person same-day registration and extending the deadlines to register by mail, online, at a voter registration agency, or at a local driver’s license examination center.
  • Shortening state residency requirements for voter registration from 30 days to 22 days and eliminating the minimum time that a voter must have resided within a precinct.
The Pew Charitable Trusts funded research on the impact of these changes, and although study of future elections is needed to better evaluate the effects, initial findings include:
  • Costs decreased by an average of 40 percent in five election administration-related categories. The 46 (of 64) counties with data available spent about $9.56 per vote in the 2014 general election, compared with nearly $16 in 2008.
  • The use of provisional ballots declined nearly 98 percent. In the 2010 general election, voters in the state cast 39,361 provisional ballots. In 2014, that number dropped to 981.
  • Nearly two-thirds of voters in the 2014 general election said they returned their ballots in person, rather than by mail. Of these voters, almost 80 percent said it took them less than 10 minutes to get to a designated location, usually a drop box.
Although capturing the precise cost of administering an election can be challenging, initial evidence indicates that certain election costs in Colorado decreased after the law was enacted. Counties spent an average of $9.56 per vote in 2014, down from $15.96 in 2008, and all but three counties spent less per vote in 2014 than in 2008.
Statewide, turnout in Colorado grew from 51.7 percent in 2010 to 54.7 percent in 2014. Many factors affect turnout, and the impact of the new law on voter participation cannot be precisely measured. Colorado had a competitive, high-profile Senate contest in 2014, which may have driven turnout higher. Further, Colorado has seen turnout in midterm elections increase every year since 1994, making it difficult to tell to what degree the gain reported in 2014 was due to the new law or evidence of a much longer-term trend in the state. Still, Colorado had the nation’s second-highest turnout rate in the 2018 midterm election, according to figures from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office and the Florida-based United States Elections Project. Turnout for the March 3, 2020 Super Tuesday presidential primary was also at a record level of nearly 50 percent of registered voters.

In a survey of more than 1,500 individuals about the voter experience in Colorado, mail and in-person voters reported almost identical high rates of satisfaction with their voting experience. Among mail voters, 95 percent indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their voting experience, compared with 96 percent of in- person voters. Additionally, although all Colorado voters receive mail ballots, they do not necessarily return them via the Postal Service. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents said they returned their ballot in person, usually to a drop box. Convenience seems to have been a factor; of these voters, 78 percent said it took less than 10 minutes to get to a drop box location or voter service center.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — automatically mail paper ballots to all registered voters with an option for voters to return marked ballots by mail or by drop them off at voting centers or in special drop boxes. Some counties in California have also moved to universal voting by mail. Every registered voter gets a mail ballot for every election without having to request it. In the 2018 general election these states averaged turnout 10 percent higher than the country as a whole.

Five Other states — Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey — plus the District of Columbia allow voters to register as permanent voters-by-mail who will automatically receive mail ballots so long as they keep voting regularly. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of voting by mail, and total turnout, has gone up in these jurisdictions too.

Almost one-quarter of U.S. states offer all their voters the option of “no excuse” mail ballots, but voters must proactively fill out and send a mail ballot application form to their county election authority to receive a mail ballot for each election. Of these, 12 allow for annual applications covering all elections in a calendar year.
Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming offer “no excuse” mail ballots.
Texas is one of 16 states that limit access to “absentee mail ballots.” In these state mail ballots must be requested by the voter along with an affadavit offering an excuse (typically some unavoidable absence from one’s residence on election day) for not being able to vote in person.
Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia limit access to “absentee mail ballots.”
Seven of those sixteen states waive the “excuse” requirement for voters over a certain age (usually 65). Some of the states that discourage voting by mail, like Texas, do offer early voting in-person (e.g., Texas and beginning this year, New York), but early in-person voting obviously is no substitute for mail ballots during a pandemic.

If Congress does not enact a national vote-by-mail act, each of these states will individually decide whether to and how to relax or eliminate the varying restrictions each state places on voting by mail, and each state will make the decision by some sort of executive action alone or through legislative action, which takes time. Several states are eyeing holding special legislative sessions to deal with various aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, and they should take the opportunity to liberalize voting rules, even if it’s a temporary measure.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has introduced legislation that would require every state to conduct November’s election entirely by mail if a quarter of states declare a state of emergency from an infectious disease or natural disaster.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute based in New York City, has recommended all states expand vote-by-mail. In a memo released Monday, the organization said all voters should be offered the option to cast ballots by mail to assure voters can avoid lines at the polls and exposure to COVID-19.

The single biggest obstacle to a adopting universal mail ballots across the nation in every election jurisdiction is the Republican Party’s resistance to any expansion of the voting franchise. Even if Republicans go along with the general idea, they may try to restrict universal mail ballot voting to make it hard to access for Democratic leaning voters.

But there is one thing about the coronavirus crisis that may jolt Republicans nationally and in the states to change their tune about “convenience” voting measures: The very high likelihood that older voters, who tilt toward the GOP (Trump carried seniors by seven points in 2016), will be most reluctant to risk their health (and in many cases, their lives) by voting in person during the primaries and perhaps in November. For once, Republicans may have a partisan interest in making it easier for everyone to vote. Lawmakers should take advantage of that opportunity.

In the final analysis, every county in every state already offer mail ballots to voters. Among the states, 5 are already send mail ballots to every registered voter and 5 more are one minor procedural step away from send mail ballots to every registered voter. Another 24 states already offer no excuse “absentee” mail ballots by application request, so they can easily adopt mail ballots for all by simply eliminating the mail ballot request requirement in favor of automatically mailing ballots to every registered voter.  It’s almost as easy for remaining 16 states to transition to mail ballots for all, but their hurdle is the ideological idea that voting by absentee mail ballot requires “excused permission.” Frankly, I think not dying from a pandemic virus is one hell of a good excuse!

Update Friday, March 20, 2020
The Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit Friday aimed at increasing access to vote by mail as the coronavirus spreads in the state.

The plaintiffs are “demanding a declaratory judgment that allows all eligible voters, who believe their health is in danger under the threat of COVID-19, the ability to cast their ballot by mail if they so choose," according to a press release.

The lawsuit was filed in Travis County District Court against the Texas secretary of state and Travis County Elections.

“We must do everything we can to guarantee access to the ballot box for individuals who are practicing social distancing and self-quarantining,” Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “Current law says you can vote-by-mail if you are disabled and we believe COVID-19 puts the health of all of us at risk. This lawsuit will.”

Voting rights groups began raising concerns about the state’s ballot-by-mail program last week. Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, said she wanted to see state leaders step up and say people worried about the virus should be a valid excuse to vote by mail, because “disabled” is a broad term.

“I would like the secretary of state’s office to really explain who qualifies, who can vote absentee,” Chimene said. “I think it’s not super clear.”

In his statement, Hinojosa suggested there were ongoing conversations with Texas Republicans about these issues. However, he said, those conversations “fell apart last night because Republicans have no plan.”
Update Monday, March 23, 2020
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is introducing a new stimulus package with a robust voting rights component. It includes a set of provisions that would potentially prevent coronavirus from scuttling this fall’s elections. The provisions would make it possible for every eligible voter in the country to cast a vote by mail. This would spare them the excruciating choice between practicing social distancing — thus protecting themselves and the rest of us from the spread of the disease — and exercising their right to the franchise. The bill contains these provisions:
  • It mandates that states and jurisdictions set up a process by which any eligible voter can vote by mail if he or she chooses — and would not require voters to give any rationale for doing so. Such voters would be provided with a postage-prepaid, self-sealing envelope.
  • If any state or jurisdiction declares an emergency, they would be required to automatically mail absentee ballots to all registered voters, no later than two weeks before Election Day.
  • It requires states and jurisdictions to implement at least 15 consecutive days of early voting in federal elections.
  • It mandates that states and jurisdictions create a same-day voter registration option for all eligible voters.
  • It budgets $4 billion for states to implement these changes, in keeping with a recent Brennan Center analysis that recommended that any coronavirus response legislation include at least $2 billion to protect the election.
The message to Republicans should be: Millions of your voters may be disenfranchised if they cannot get to or are afraid to get to the polls.
Update Friday, March 27, 2020
On Friday, the U.S. House followed the Senate and passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, sending it to Donald Trump, who signed it that afternoon. However, while this stimulus package is the biggest since World War II, it failed to ensure that Americans will still be able to vote safely in November. Instead, Congress is planning an indefensible month-long recess rather than pass further measures that would combat our ongoing public health and economic crises—and ensure that our democracy remains operational.

The new stimulus contains $400 million in funding for states to expand voting access, just one-tenth of the $4 billion that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had included in her proposal on Monday. ​Moreover, this compromise legislation doesn't include any mandate that states expand voting access. Voting rights advocates have blasted the sum, which was watered down in negotiations with the Republican-held Senate, as far from sufficient.

Congressional Republicans, who've long been hostile to voting rights, strongly opposed provisions to make it easier to vote. Democrats can still try to reach a future compromise by agreeing to make these provisions temporary emergency measures rather than, as Pelosi envisioned, enshrining them into law permanently. By doing so, Democrats can demonstrate to the public that they are acting in good faith and not taking advantage of a crisis for alleged partisan gain.

Furthermore, because Republican-leaning states are least likely to make it easy to vote by mail, and because the GOP's elderly voter base is most at risk of serious illness, it's in Republicans’ own interest to ensure that voters have alternatives to in-person voting this year. Indeed, even Republicans in red states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Montana have called for a switch to mail voting.
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