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Sen. Kamala Harris on Thursday announced a new bill that would expand voting by mail and early voting amid serious health concerns over the in-person casting of ballots at polling stations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the obstacles many already face when voting,” the California Democrat and former state attorney general emphasized in a statement.
“Even before the pandemic, Native Americans, Black and Latinx voters, and voters with disabilities too often faced long lines, inaccessible voting locations, and outright hostility by election officials. I’m proud to announce the VoteSafe Act because the American people deserve a comprehensive solution to ensure that voting is safe and accessible,” added Harris, who last year ran for the Democratic presidential nomination before dropping out of the race in December.
The senator’s legislation – if passed into law – would authorize $5 billion to expand vote-by-mail and early voting, improve the safety and accessibility of polling places, mandate no-excuse mail-in absentee voting (20 states require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot), and require states to provide at least 20 days of early voting ahead of an election.
The new measure by Harris seems similar in scope to a bill introduced last month by Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
That legislation – known as the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA) -- calls for at least 20 days of early voting, ensures that all voters have the option to vote by absentee ballot, and requires that all mail-in ballots submitted during 21 days leading to Election Day be counted. Klobuchar is the top Democrat on the Rules Committee and Wyden’s the ranking member on the Finance Committee, the two leading panels with jurisdiction over election reform.
Harris has signed onto the Klobuchar-Wyden bill.
The senator’s office said her measure doesn’t compete with the earlier legislation.
“Harris’ bill is focused on making the voting process more accessible to communities that have historically experienced barriers to voting, and providing states with the funding and flexibility to improve the in-person voting experience,” Harris press secretary Meaghan Lynch told Fox News.
Klobuchar – who also ran for the White House before ending her campaign early last month – and Harris are both under consideration as running mates by presumptive by Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Both senators campaigned with the former vice president in March before the coronavirus pandemic upended the primaries.
With the coronavirus outbreak forcing social distancing and keeping most Americans in their homes in hopes of preventing a spread of the virus, nearly all the states delayed their remaining primary elections or transforming them nearly entirely to voting by mail and absentee balloting.
But last week – after a bitter partisan fight won by Republicans – Wisconsin became the first state to hold in-person voting during the pandemic.
With the state under a stay-at-home order, thousands of poll workers refused to show up over health concerns, forcing many cities and towns to cut the number of polling stations. Milwaukee was down to just five polling sites from the original 180.
Even though the National Guard stepped in to provide some assistance, long lines instantly formed as the polls opened, with many voters waiting hours to cast a ballot. In many instances, social distancing was extremely difficult to maintain.
Democrats in Wisconsin and across the nation decried the rulings to carry on with the in-person voting during the pandemic.
The partisan fight in Wisconsin was the first major battle in the broader political war between Democrats and Republicans over expanding voting by mail and absentee balloting for November’s general election.
Biden recently predicted “there’s going to be a great deal more absentee balloting” in the general election.
The $2 trillion economic stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law by the president three weeks ago – which aims to help workers, small businesses and large companies devastated by the shutdown of much of the nation’s economy due to the pandemic, as well as provide aid to hospitals on the front lines in the crisis – also included $400 million to help states move toward mail-in voting.
Senate Democrats had pushed for $2 billion in election funding, with House Democrats angling for double that amount. Congressional Democrats say they’ll work to increase funding in the next stimulus package.
A study from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice released last month spotlighted sweeping changes to current voting practices across the country – such as universal mail-in voting, ballot drive-by drop off boxes from coast to coast, and easier online voter registration – to make voting in November safe. Their price tag to implement the changes was $2 billion.
The push by Democrats is facing plenty of opposition from the president and Republicans, who’ve long opposed moves to expand voting by mail and early voting by arguing that it invites voter fraud abuse. Democrats – pushing back on such arguments – say that cases of actual voter fraud are limited and claim that Republicans are trying to suppress voter turnout to improve their chances of winning elections.
President Trump has railed in recent weeks against expanding voting by mail and absentee balloting. He’s argued that “mail-in voting is horrible. It’s corrupt” and has suggested that “you get thousands and thousands of people sitting in someone's living room signing ballots all over the place. … I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing.” The president didn’t offer evidence to back up his claim that voting by mail is rampant with fraud and abuse.
Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel – in a recent opinion piece for Fox News – claimed that the election reforms pushed by Democrats would “vastly expand opportunities for fraud and weaken confidence in our elections, but all Washington Democrats see is a potential benefit for their party.”
The RNC and the Trump reelection campaign launched a joint multimillion-dollar legal campaign to block attempts by Democrats to change voting rules in states across the country amide the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic National Committee – in pushing back against the GOP efforts – is teaming up with state Democratic parties to help voters obtain absentee ballots.