Voting by Mail Is the Hot New Idea. Is There Time to Make It Work?

In Wisconsin, Democrats sued elections officials to extend voting deadlines.

In Rhode Island, the secretary of state wants all 788,000 registered voters to receive absentee ballot applications.

In Maryland, a special election to replace the late Representative Elijah E. Cummings will be conducted entirely by mail.

As the coronavirus outbreak upends daily life and tears at the social fabric of the country, states are rapidly searching for ways to protect the most sacred institution in a democracy: voting.

With gatherings of people suddenly presenting an imminent health threat, state officials and voting rights activists have begun calling for an enormous expansion of voting by mail — for both the remaining Democratic presidential primary race and, planning for the worst-case scenario, the general election in November.

“The D.N.C. is urging the remaining primary states to use a variety of other critical mechanisms that will make voting easier and safer for voters and election officials alike,” Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement late Tuesday. “The simplest tool is vote by mail, which is already in use in a number of states and should be made available to all registered voters.”

While rules vary somewhat state to state, 33 states and the District of Columbia currently collect ballots by mail or permit “no excuse” absentee voting, in which people can vote absentee for any reason. Colorado, Washington State and Oregon have all-mail elections.

Historically, going to the polls has been an American ritual — so much so that some communities shut down their schools on Election Day. Yet an increasing number of people have opted to skip polling sites altogether in recent years, choosing to vote from the comfort of their own homes. More than 23 percent of voters had cast their ballots by mail in the 2016 general election, twice as many as voters did in 2004.

The next three nominating contests in the Democratic primary race — Hawaii, Wyoming and Alaska — are all run by the state Democratic Party, not the state government. All three have had extensive vote-by-mail operations in place for months; Wyoming even canceled its in-person caucuses and went to a full vote-by-mail system.

But given the decentralized structure of American elections, which are governed by states, counties and even municipalities, shifting to a federally mandated, completely vote-by-mail system for the general election could be impossible both logistically and legislatively.

Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expressed optimism that states could gear up to expand mail and absentee voting for the coming primary elections, which tend to have relatively low turnout.

The November general election will be another matter, he said.

“I think that once people take a deep breath and consider what’s going to be done in November, they’re going to realize that the big lift necessary to expand the amount of mail voting by a factor of four, five or six in some states is going to be disruptive,” said Mr. Stewart, who studies both voting technology and election administration.

Under normal circumstances, states gradually transition to mail voting.

Mr. Stewart said he worried that states’ lack of experience holding big elections without in-person voting could have negative consequences.

“You can go step by step through the process and realize that there are a lot of details that can cause the mail ballot pipeline to spring leaks,” he said. “The one that’s gotten the most attention in recent years has been the issue of verifying signatures.”

In Maryland, the state’s plan to run its special congressional race by mail — the first time the state has done so for a congressional election — will serve as a practice run in case the state is forced to move to statewide mail-in voting, said former Representative Kweisi Mfume, the Democratic candidate in that race.

“The one good thing that comes out of this is that, for the first time, without having to conduct a statewide mail-in election, the state will have a real opportunity, in a congressional district, to put in place a procedure that is jointly agreed upon and to see to what extent it works,” said Mr. Mfume, who added that he supported the decision this week by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to move to an all-mail congressional election.

Gaining access to the ballot box has increasingly become a partisan issue, with some Republicans, citing reports of voter fraud, adding hurdles that include purging voter rolls and instituting voter ID requirements, while Democrats promote ideas like same-day registration and early and mail voting options.

Democrats in Congress have pushed to expand voting by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the possibility that it can still be wreaking havoc in November.

A bill by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the former presidential candidate, would require that all states offered a mail-in or drop-off paper ballot option if 25 percent of states declared a state of emergency related to the coronavirus or another infectious disease or natural disaster, and that requests for a ballot could be made electronically.

“There’s a public health crisis — that was central to my introducing this bill,” said Mr. Wyden, who in 1996 became the first senator elected in an all-mail election.

Efforts to introduce all-mail voting have had plenty of detractors. “I’ve known about the opposition in the past,” Mr. Wyden said. “But if they’re faced with the question of how do you actually hold an election this fall, I think they’re going to have trouble defying common sense and making arguments for why you shouldn’t do it.”

The bill would call for all states to send prepaid, self-sealing envelopes, as well as ballot-tracking markers, to make sure that voters incurred no personal cost that would act as a barrier to voting, and to minimize any spread of the coronavirus through licking envelopes.

Though the bill does not specify a price tag, a previous iteration under Mr. Wyden estimated a cost of roughly $500 million. But the bill would provide only the opportunity of vote-by-mail expansion, not fully transition the country to voting by mail.

“We’re not saying to get rid of all polling places by any means,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “It’s just that the more people we can get to vote this way, the better off this is.”

Ms. Klobuchar, who is also the ranking member on the Senate Rules Committee, said she had been speaking with Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and the committee’s chairman, about getting bipartisan support for the bill. She has also spoken to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, about funding.

“We’re being practical about it,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “We can’t change every state into those three states in seven months.”

Individual states have also begun to marshal efforts to increase vote-by-mail significantly while still preserving polling stations, in part to help serve voters with disabilities.

In Rhode Island, Nellie M. Gorbea, the secretary of state, has been working with the state’s Board of Elections to try to make the April 28 primary “predominantly a vote-by-mail election” by automatically sending applications to all of the state’s 788,000 registered voters.

“The minute I became aware that the coronavirus has a particularly strong impact on our elderly population, my thoughts went to polling locations, because the demographics of polling locations tends to be seniors and retired people,” Ms. Gorbea said.

She said that while the plan would carry additional costs for the state, expanding vote by mail through applications should be part of the state’s overall emergency spending. And, she added, it should be tried now, with a general election looming.

“It’s a good time to test these systems in case we are still in this situation come later on in the fall,” she said.

Other states with late primary elections, like New York and Connecticut, are evaluating whether to expand mail voting options.

In New York, officials are considering both delaying the April 28 primary and expanding mail-in options, according to Douglas A. Kellner, co-chairman of the State Board of Elections.

“I am not in favor of mail-in elections in general because of the potential for fraud and the lack of verifiability,” Mr. Kellner, a Democrat, said. “But it’s certainly being discussed. So I wouldn’t rule that out.”

In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill asked Gov. Ned Lamont to issue an executive order permitting anyone to obtain an absentee ballot in the state’s primary on April 28. Those ballots are currently available only if you are ill.

The governor, a Democrat, has not yet ruled on that request, but officials are also looking ahead to the fall.

“Our office is already talking about the August primary and the November general election internally,” said Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for Ms. Merrill.

In Wisconsin, Democrats sued elections officials on Wednesday to drop photo ID requirements for absentee ballots and voting by mail, and to extend the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot and voting by mail for the state’s April 7 election.

Aside from the lawsuit, the state Democratic Party said it had shifted its entire organizing apparatus to a digital campaign during the coronavirus outbreak. Part of that includes a huge digital canvassing effort through emails, text messages and social media posts to persuade voters to register online and to request a vote-by-mail or absentee ballot.

“Our whole organizing operation has switched to working on getting people to request absentee ballots in Wisconsin,” said Ben Wikler, the chair of the state Democratic Party.

But as states mount their own efforts to deal with primary elections — including postponing them, as Ohio and several other states have done — Ms. Klobuchar and other Democrats are growing anxious about November.

“We really have got to get on this,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “Even though there’s all kinds of reasons they canceled in Ohio, this is going to be jarring to people. They have to be able to vote. We’re going to have to figure this out.”

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