Donna Brazile: Elections during coronavirus – Americans shouldn't have to risk their lives to vote

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Candidly, I’m shocked that I even have to write this. And I’m horrified that the current administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are putting American lives at risk by forcing them to vote in-person during a pandemic involving a highly communicable virus.

But just this week, we learned from the Wisconsin Department of Health that 52 people who reported that they voted in, or worked, the April 7 primary election have subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus, a completely avoidable number that will no doubt continue to rise.  This because the Republican-controlled state legislature refused to permit Wisconsin’s Democratic governor from pushing back the state’s primary election date and to enable the state’s citizens to vote by mail, as other states are doing to protect the lives of American citizens from the coronavirus.

So here we are, exactly 150 years after the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the federal government and states from denying citizens the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and exactly 100 years after the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, American citizens are being forced to choose between protecting their lives and exercising their constitutional right to vote.

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Needless to say, this is not a choice that American citizens, or any citizen living in a democracy, should have to make in 2020. That is why we must pass federal legislation that enables early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail in all 50 states.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar. D-Minn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are the lead sponsors of the “Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA) of 2020,” which would ensure that early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail procedures are implemented safely and securely across our country. In fact, five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – already vote almost entirely by mail, and approximately a quarter of all American citizens already vote by mail.

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Notably, these five states have elected Democratic AND Republican statewide officials. So, despite what President Trump claims, vote-by-mail is NOT a partisan process that favors one party over another. And, if implemented with adequate funding NOW, to ensure a secure ballot tracking system, this process is no more susceptible to voter fraud than our current voting system, perhaps even less so, under the NDEBA’s cybersecurity guidelines.

In fact, let’s take a look at how several states across the county – led by both Democrats and Republicans – have recently responded to the coronavirus pandemic by incorporating vote-by-mail into their state primaries, and how we can use these states as models to conduct nationwide vote-by-mail elections going forward.

Just this Tuesday in Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who previously postponed the state’s primary from March 17 to April 28 because of the virus, led efforts to convert the state’s primary into an almost entirely vote-by-mail process. According to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, another Republican, 1.9 million Ohioans requested vote-by-mail ballots, and more than 1.4 million cast their vote before the primary. LaRose said, "In a matter of weeks, we've done something that's taken other states years to do — transform our state into one capable of voting entirely by mail.”

It’s time for the federal government to step up and lead a nationwide effort to ensure that early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail procedures are implemented safely and securely across our country and not just state by state.  

If Ohio, our seventh-largest state and a key presidential election battleground, can transform to vote-by-mail in a matter of weeks, why can’t our country, led by the federal government, do so in the six months before November?

And it’s not just Ohio. In Kentucky, which postponed its primary from May 19 to June 23, a bipartisan effort by the Republican secretary of state and the Democratic governor has resulted in an agreement to allow all registered voters to mail in their ballots. This is Kentucky, people! If Republicans and Democrats can come together in Kentucky on vote-by-mail, can’t we do so at the federal level?

And it’s not just at the presidential primary level where states are moving to vote-by-mail. In Maryland and Massachusetts, special elections for a congressional seat and for a state Senate seat are being conducted almost entirely by mail. So that’s four examples, from four different regions of our county, where states have quickly transitioned to vote-by-mail ballots in order to protect our democratic process and the lives of our citizens.

These states are leading us, just as state governments are leading our response to, and recovery from, the coronavirus pandemic. Now it’s time for the federal government to step up and lead a nationwide effort to ensure that early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail procedures are implemented safely and securely across our country and not just state by state.

Some may ask, as our federal government doles out hundreds of billions of dollars during this pandemic, what’s the price tag for vote-by-mail? My friend and the Founder of Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams, estimates it to be $4 billion. Is $4 billion too much to ask to ensure that the 2020 elections and future elections are resilient to emergencies like this pandemic? Put another way, is $4 billion too much to ask to safeguard our democracy?

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There’s one final issue we must address: the security of vote-by-mail.

It’s absolutely critical that, as proposed in the NDEBA, the funding for vote-by-mail includes a secure ballot tracking system with Intelligent Mail barcodes, to ensure that voters and boards of election can track mail-in ballots in the 2020 and future elections. This funding must also enable the U.S. Postal Service, along with relevant U.S. cybersecurity agencies and election commissions, to work seamlessly together to protect the security of these ballots.

Critically, now is NOT the time to defund the Postal Service, as the administration recently threatened to do. But should we be at all surprised by this threat? Might it be because President Trump continues to rant against vote-by-mail, calling it “horrible” and “corrupt,” despite himself voting by mail in Florida from the comfort and safety of the White House?

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Let’s be very clear here. Despite the president’s rant, there is no evidence that vote-by-mail favors one party over another. In fact, all evidence is to the contrary: vote-by-mail works for both Republicans and Democrats, and recent bipartisan efforts in Ohio and Kentucky confirm this. And a recent WSJ/NBC News poll found that a majority of voters (58 percent) support permanently changing election laws to permit vote-by-mail and that 67 percent of voters favor a vote-by-mail option this coming November.

Now more than ever, it is imperative that we ensure all eligible American citizens are able to vote safely and securely — just like our president. In 2020, more than 230 years after the first U.S. presidential election, and at a time when our country and our democracy are facing unprecedented threats, no eligible American citizens should have to risk their lives to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

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