Who gets a ballot this fall? States have limited time to decide whether to allow vote-by-mail

With less than four months until Election Day, states have limited time to decide whether vote-by-mail will be permitted as states grapple with how to hold a safe election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes as the Republican National Committee has doubled their legal budget this election cycle to fight the issue of mail-in voting in what they describe as Democrats’ attempt to disregard election security for political gain. 

“They're actually sending ballots, and they’re sending live ballots to addresses that have moved away or people that have been deceased to the tune of millions,” said RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. “So there’s absolutely room for fraud. I think it's common sense there could be fraud with millions of live ballots out there.”

The RNC has committed $20 million to legal issues this cycle – up from the $10 million they committed in February – after the issue of mail-in voting came to the forefront of this election cycle. The RNC is currently pursuing lawsuits across 13 states to challenge Democrats and voting rights groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, who seek to change state laws to allow for broader mail-in voting options.

Currently, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado, Utah, and Washington state have all mail-in voting for all elections, but more states are trying to make this the primary way to vote this fall and either eliminate -- or severely limit -- who can vote in person. Republicans say this is too big of a change too close to the election for states to make the shift. 

“Even states that are all mail-in, it took years to process in Washington and Oregon. Even they have cautioned it’s way too fast for the country to move to mail-in voting,” said McDaniel. 

President Trump has been particularly vocal about the issue, tweeting concerns about fraud and ballot harvesting, which is when people collect mail-in and absentee ballots to submit for voters. 

At a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity last month, Trump said mail-in ballots were “the biggest risk we have” this election.  

The president distinguished between the issue of mail-in voting versus absentee ballots at the town hall, saying that one has minimal protections in place while the other is an established practice. 

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“You’re absentee it’s okay, but people go through a process for that. It’s really pretty good," he said. "But the mail-in ballots, they mail them to anybody, and they send them out by the millions.”

Absentee and the current topic of mail-in voting are essentially the same. Absentee ballots have been around for years and states have their own way of making sure the ballots are securely sent and submitted.

In many states, voters have to request the ballot, verify their address, and send the ballot in with a signature that’s also verified. Mail-in voting in some states this cycle have opted to send ballots to all registered voters without having voters request them. 

The president's concern highlights the main issue in many of the legal battles over mail-in voting: who gets a ballot. In California, the RNC intervened when Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, issued an executive order that would make the state primarily mail-in voting this fall and send all registered voters a ballot. Republicans said this was an overreach of executive authority and didn’t provide any verification that these voters were still active, living at the address in the voter file, or even still alive. 

Ultimately, Newsom sent a bill to the state legislature on the issue that passed, negating the argument of executive overreach, but the RNC said Democrats’ lack of concern about protections on who gets these ballots is a blatant disregard for safety. 

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Democrats, however, say that there are enough safeguards in place for mail-in voting, similar to absentee voting, that fraud is not a concern for them. 

“First of all, we haven't necessarily seen this in other states where they have implemented vote-by-mail, like Washington State and Oregon,” said Xochitl Hinojosa senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee. “So that is something that we are not worried about. These are tactics by Republicans. They try and cry voter fraud every single year on every single issue because they don’t want people to go out and vote.”

Hinojosa said that their goal is to make sure voters have options and support safety measures to make sure the election is secure, but also does not impose barriers on voting. Democrats argue expanding mail-in voting options the only way to ensure everyone can vote safely without discriminating against those deemed higher risk.

Voting rights groups say that the president and Republicans are making the issue political by preventing people from voting in a time when it’s unclear if Americans will even be back to work as normal. One expert said it’s a surprise this issue has become political when it’s been a practice for some time. 

“Until now, vote-by-mail has not been seen as partisan,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center. “Republicans use it. Democrats use it. It doesn’t really benefit one party or another. What's baffling to me, is why President Trump is yelling about vote-by-mail when we need to hold a safe election in the middle of a pandemic.”

Fox News’ Mike Emanuel contributed to this report.