How Voting by Mail Became a Trump-Led Fight in the U.S.
Voting by mail, which began in the U.S. during the Civil War when soldiers were away from home, has become increasingly popular in recent elections. A surge in mail-in ballots is expected this November as Americans avoid polling places for fear of contracting the coronavirus. But President Donald Trump, who is seeking a second term, and others in the Republican Party are resistant to making vote-by-mail an option for all — with Trump going so far as to suggest delaying the election until the pandemic eases. The fight is playing out in state capitals and courtrooms around the country, since states have authority for how elections are carried out.
1. Which states allow voting by mail?
In the six states with the most expansive policies — California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — all voters will automatically receive a ballot in the mail, andfour of those states will pay postage for sending it back. In 28 other states, plus the District of Columbia, a prospective voter must request a mail-in “absentee” ballot in advance but need not provide a reason for wanting it. In 12 states that do require a reason, citing a concern about the coronavirus will suffice this year. That leaves four states — Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas — where absentee ballots still are reserved only for those who can cite an approved reason,such as that they will be away on Election Day, serving jury duty, or aredisabled,elderly or incarcerated.
2. What’s left to be resolved?
More than 150 lawsuits have been filed in at least 41 states over the mechanics of voting by mail this year. On specific rules and procedures, states vary wildly. Thirty-one require that the signature on the ballot envelope be checked against a signature on file, for instance, while six states and the District of Columbia require a signature but don’t check it. Three states require the ballot be notarized. Alabama requires a copy of the voter’s ID and a signature from two witnesses or a notary public.
3. Where are the battle lines?
Generally speaking, Republicans are seeking tighter regulation of the process, while Democrats are seeking greater leniency. (Conventional wisdom holds that high turnout favors Democrats because it means more nonwhite and low-income voters are participating.) In Minnesota, groups including the NAACP and League of Women of Voters are challenging a requirement that a witness be present when a mail-in ballot is filled out. For those who live alone, that requirement “poses a direct threat to their health because of the COVID-19 threat,” says the NAACP’scomplaint. In a lawsuitfiled in Pennsylvania, Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee seek to ensure that all written ballots are delivered in person or by mail to county boards of elections, not collected at places such as shopping centers, retirement homes, college campuses and municipal government. They also want to disqualify any ballots not received in an unmarked envelope inside the mailing envelope (to guarantee voter anonymity) and to allow poll watchers to be present at “all locations where absentee or mail-in ballots are being returned.”
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