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Pandemic threatens monster turnout in November

Election administrators and voting-rights experts say there's little time to change November voting procedures to account for coronavirus.

Time is running out to allow millions of Americans to vote this fall without fear of contracting the novel coronavirus.

Mail voting — the voting method that best preserves social distancing — is infrequently used in many states, and those that don’t have extensive mail voting might be unable to implement systems before November. And while 33 states, including most 2020 presidential battlegrounds, already allow any voter to cast a ballot by mail who wants to, a number of those states aren’t prepared to handle the crush of mailed-in ballots that could be coming their way in November.

In interviews with POLITICO, eight election administrators and voting rights advocates said it is still too difficult for many voters to cast absentee ballots, even as two-thirds of American adults say they would be uncomfortable going to a polling place to vote, according to a new Pew Research Center survey — and as local, state and federal governments encourage or require Americans to stay home.

The consequences could shake the 2020 elections: Turnout had been expected to break modern records but instead could turn sharply downward, based on the path the coronavirus pandemic takes over the next few months. The patchwork system has thrown a wrench into every 2020 campaign, from the presidential hopefuls down to state and local candidates, as they navigate different state laws and emerging policy changes to make sure their voters can cast ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is going to be a real challenge to do these kinds of fundamental shifts,” said Trey Grayson, a Republican and former Kentucky secretary of state. “Election administrators have their work cut out for themselves. The country and the states need to make decisions now to put those administrators ... in [the] position to pull these things off.”

The coronavirus economic relief law President Donald Trump signed last week contains $400 million in election security grants to help states “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” But that’s a number many warn is not nearly enough.

“Everybody needs to contribute, but Congress really needs to pony up,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center. “My view is they’re shortchanging our democracy right now and the American people.”

The Brennan Center estimated its own “Covid-19 election resiliency measures” — which include everything from expanding a vote-by-mail option to every American, safely maintaining in-person voting, and a big public education campaign — will cost $2 billion, an estimate Weiser called “conservative.” Other estimates peg the costs even higher.

Even early shifts toward mail voting in upcoming primaries have proved costly and challenging.

In Wisconsin, where officials have resisted postponing the state's April 7 primaries because there are also state and local general elections scheduled for the same date, elected officials and the parties have been pushing to get voters to request absentee ballots instead of showing up in person. But clerks across the state ran out of envelopes for the ballots, prompting the state to step in with an emergency order of more than 1 million additional envelopes.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, also called for every voter to receive an absentee ballot late last week. But election administrators in the state said they wouldn’t have the supplies to do that, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, and Republican state legislative leaders balked at the request, calling it logistically impossible.

As of Monday morning, more than 883,000 people have requested absentee ballots in Wisconsin, well over the 250,000 absentee ballots cast in the 2016 primaries — but well short of total turnout that year, when about 2.1 million people voted amid competitive presidential contests.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, announced last week his office will mail absentee ballot request forms to every one of Georgia's 6.9 million active voters ahead of the rescheduled May 19 primary. In an interview with POLITICO before the coronavirus relief package was signed into law, Raffensperger estimated it would cost around $13 million for the absentee voting operation, and he said the state would absorb some of the costs normally borne by counties by using existing federal grant money. “We had enough funds to do this for this one election,” Raffensperger said.

Multiple election experts warned that states that do not already have a robust vote-by-mail system in place will not be able to stand up an entirely mail system in time for the November election, and should instead focus on expanding absentee voting while minimizing risk for in-person voting. But even officials in states that have widespread mail voting are seeking more guidance about the funds they’ll have available and the administrative changes they can make.

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