When Wisconsin voters and officials sought to adapt the state’s spring elections tobetter observe social distancingguidelines, theU.S. Supreme Court refused. One of the changes state officials had asked for was extra time so voters couldcast their ballots by mail.
The Constitution gives the states theprimary responsibility for running elections. Some states are more ready for mail-in voting than others – thoughcongressional actioncould resolve the matter nationwide.
5 states are already there; many more are close
Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah already have full“vote-by-mail” systems. In the weeks before an election, election officials mail a ballot to every registered voter. Voters can choose to vote in person if they wish, but the vast majority vote remotely by either mailing in or dropping off their ballots.
Three states– California, Nebraska and North Dakota – let individual counties set up vote-by-mail systems, but have not adopted that approach statewide.
And28 states and the District of Columbiaallow what is called “no-excuse absentee voting.”
Under this rule, any registered voter can request an absentee ballot be mailed to them ahead of Election Day. Most states allow voters toapply for them onlineor by mail.
Voters receive the ballots by mail, along with a self-addressed, pre-stamped return envelope. They then fill out the ballot and mail it back, or drop it off, to election officials, who then tally the ballots as if they had been cast in person.
None of these places would need to change their laws so that every voter could cast a ballot by mail in November.
But in Washington, D.C., and the 28 “no-excuse” states where voters have to apply for absentee ballots,election officials would have to prepareto handle a muchlarger numberofapplications– and to process the ballots once they’re sent back.
This would likely mean purchasing more blank ballots and envelopes, as well as buying or relocating vote-counting equipment, and assigning more staff to handle the paperwork involved.
Some states have strict rules
There are17 statesthat restrict who can get an absentee ballot. They typically require voters to sign a statement certifying that they are ill or elderly, will be out of town, or will otherwise be unable to cast a ballot in person.
At least nine of those states –Alabama,Delaware,Indiana,Louisiana,Massachusetts,New Hampshire,New York,VirginiaandWest Virginia– have already loosened their rules to accommodate the public desire to follow social distancing recommendations, at least for upcoming state, local and primary elections. It is not yet clear whether those eased restrictions will continue to apply for the November election.
The other eight states in this group could loosen their rules too, by an orderfrom the governoror thestate’s top election official, or through a legislative change, depending on their situations. A Texas court has recentlyordered such a change in that state, though the state’s Republican attorney general hassaid he will appeal.
A national plan?
Despite all these state differences, it is possible that the coronavirus pandemic will prompt Congress to create a set of rules that apply nationwide. Congress has done this in the past regarding thescheduling of federal elections,voter registration rulesand other aspects ofelection processes.
That’s because Congress has theconstitutional authorityto impose its own regulations for the conduct of federal elections. Members of Congress have already beendiscussing legislationthat would require all states to allow vote-from-home solutions for this November’s federal elections.
One suchbill, introduced by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden, would require every state to allow no-excuse absentee balloting by mail for federal elections.
Although a Democratic bill, vote-by-mail hassupport amongRepublicans too, and is in usein red statesas well as blue ones. Despite claims to the contrary by some, there is no evidence that vote by mail wouldsubstantially favor either political party.
Federal laws would not require states to conduct state or local elections by mail, but most states would likely follow suit because it would be much easier to conduct the concurrent state and local elections by the same processes. That would allow more people to decide for themselves how to best protect their health, while also participating in the most fundamental part of a democracy – an election.