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States Consider Expanding Vote-By-Mail As Coronavirus Collides With Elections

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Louisiana is delaying its April 4 primary until June due to concerns about the coronavirus. Meanwhile, election officials in other states are scrambling to assure voters that they can still safely participate in the upcoming primaries. One option - voting from home. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, that has its own challenges.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is one of many state officials urging voters to consider voting by mail instead of showing up at the polls.

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JB PRITZKER: We encourage voters who choose that option to do so as soon as possible so they can get their vote-by-mail ballots in time to return them by mail by Election Day.

FESSLER: Which in Illinois is Tuesday - so time is running short, although voters can still drop their ballots off in person at the local election office. Election officials around the country are trying to figure out how to adapt to the current health crisis. They're taking steps to keep polling sites clean. But in many places, fear of coronavirus has led poll workers to back out at the last minute, and some polling sites have had to be shut down or consolidated. That's made vote by mail, or absentee voting, as it's sometimes called, more attractive, although its availability differs a lot from place to place.

TAMMY PATRICK: It's going to be a state-by-state question on whether or not people can ramp up in time.

FESSLER: Tammy Patrick is a former election official from Arizona now with the Democracy Fund. She says some states are in a much better position than others because they already do a lot of vote by mail.

PATRICK: So for states out West like Arizona, where you have - 65%, 70% of the voters are already getting their ballots by mail, to cross that finish line and just mail out a ballot to the remaining quarter or 15% of your electorate is not as difficult of a lift.

FESSLER: The challenge comes in places that aren't used to people voting by mail, where the law only allows them to do so for limited reasons, such as being away on Election Day. Alabama is one of those states, but it just expanded the list of absentee voting excuses for its March 31 runoff primary to include concern about contracting or spreading an illness.

Others are considering more drastic steps. Maryland might send every voter a mail-in ballot for its April 28 primary, and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has introduced a bill in Congress that would require all states to offer that option in the event of a widespread emergency. If so, the logistics would be challenging.

JEFF ELLINGTON: We're already working 24/7 now.

FESSLER: Jeff Ellington is president of Runbeck Elections (ph) in Phoenix, which prints and mails ballots in 18 states. He says it's possible to expand operations to meet the big surge in demand but decisions have to be made soon. Most states need mail-in ballots sent to voters about 20 to 30 days in advance.

ELLINGTON: If you can get to the end of April into May, June, July and August, those primaries would have a shot at moving to all mail. But again, it's about making the decision quickly. It's about working closely with the vendors to make it happen.

FESSLER: He says another concern is the availability of paper for potentially millions of envelopes. He says a lot of it comes from Asia, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. Amber McReynolds, who runs the nonprofit National Vote at Home Institute, has been working closely with states to figure out how to expand mail-in voting. She thinks it's important that states eliminate barriers such as requirements that voters provide their own postage or get a witness to sign the envelope. She says the bottom line is getting voters to participate.

AMBER MCREYNOLDS: I think this option to vote offers voters more days and more time in a crisis situation, especially when in-person voting may be very limited or very difficult.

FESSLER: And there's no sign that will change anytime soon despite all the efforts to assure voters that showing up in person is still safe.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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