Politicizing vote-by-mail amid COVID-19 could disenfranchise some voters: Experts

Amid President Donald Trump's charge that voting by mail is ripe with fraud potential, there are worries that such claims, in addition to the subsequent lawsuits that have followed, politicize state efforts to expand mail-in voting, and could cost some Americans a vital opportunity to have their votes counted.

The Republican National Committee has intervened in legal battles across the country, including New Mexico, Michigan and Arizona to limit mail-in ballot expansions.

In California, the RNC filed a lawsuit seeking to have Gov. Gavin Newsom's executive order automatically issuing an absentee ballot by mail to every registered state voter, overturned and declared unlawful.

"Democrats continue to use this pandemic as a ploy to implement their partisan election agenda, and Governor Newsom's executive order is the latest direct assault on the integrity of our elections," said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "Newsom's illegal power grab is a recipe for disaster that would destroy the confidence Californians deserve to have in the security of their vote."

Some election experts, however, argue that continued legal action, as states race against time and limited financial resources, could potentially have a negative effect on citizens looking to cast their vote amid concerns of a second coronavirus outbreak this fall.

"Litigation that is aimed at making it harder for people to vote in a pandemic really does threaten not only the ability of voters to vote, but voter's confidence in the fairness and the legitimacy of the process," said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California Irvine.

The RNC also got involved in a lawsuit brought by Democrats in Florida, that requested the state to count votes coming in after Election Day and permit ballot harvesting-the practice where a voter fills out an absentee ballot and entrusts it to another person to take it to a ballot-drop off location or a mail center.

Trump, who has often railed against mail voting, took aim at efforts in two battleground states -- Michigan and Nevada -- aimed at making it easier to obtain an absentee or mail-in ballot. He threatened to cut off federal funding to those states over what he claimed were "illegal" tactics.

In West Virginia, a mail carrier was charged with attempted election fraud after allegedly changing voter requests from a Democratic ballot, to a Republican one, according to the Department of Justice.

While election experts have dispelled the notion of widespread improprieties with mail-in voting, incidents like this give Trump and officials seeking further restrictions concrete examples to reference.

Another issue complicating the job of state governments in proceeding with their vote-by-mail efforts is addressing early indications of how various demographic groups are preparing to participate in upcoming elections, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A study from New York University's Brennan Center for Justice found that white voters in Georgia are shifting their behavior to mail-in voting by larger numbers compared to minority voters. White voters make up 25% of the voters who have already requested their mail ballots, compared to 17% of black voters and 11% of Latinos.

"There's evidence that members of all racial groups are shifting to what lots of people are saying is a safer and healthier option of voting by mail," said Kevin Morris, a quantitative researcher NYU's Brennan Center, who wrote the report. "There's good reason for some voters in Georgia to be nervous about what will happen if they don't follow the law to the letter in submitting absentee ballot applications."

In Fulton County, the largest and most diverse county in Georgia, local election officials are scrambling to keep up with a backlog of absentee ballot applications that have voters worried about whether they'll receive their ballot on time ahead of the state's June 9th primary. No other county in the state is reported to have had a processing problem as extensive as the one in Fulton County.

The processing backlog is troubling given that the county previously faced charges of voter suppression in 2017, when 50,000 voters received letters saying their voting status would be declared as inactive because they didn't update the address on their voter registration cards. The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a lawsuit following the 2018 election arguing that long lines and ineffective voting machines in Fulton County prevented many people from voting.

In a briefing with reporters, Fulton County Elections Director Rick Barren acknowledged the slowdown and attributed it to a staffer being diagnosed with COVID-19, resulting in a processing center being closed for several days. Though a backlog did occur, the county believes every absentee ballot application will be responded to and processed in time for the June primary.

Officials from the Georgia Secretary of State's office, however, determined that Fulton County wasn't reviewing all of the absentee ballot request applications in real-time.

"They made a decision that they were going to process all their paper ones that were mailed in first and then go back and process the ones that were e-mailed," said Election Implementation Manager Gabriel Sterling. "So they literally caught up on that particular thing this past weekend."

According to the Georgia Secretary of State's office, the state saw only 40,000 mail ballots counted in the 2016 primary elections, but has now processed and sent out more than a million ballots in response to the surge triggered by concerns about contracting the coronavirus at a polling center. The state also says it expects to learn from the issues in processing this year's primary absentee ballots in time for the fall general elections.

"Are there problems on the ground? Yes. And that was highlighted in Fulton County's case," said Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs. "There are always going to be issues in extremely populous urban areas that have more voters than a lot of these counties combined, so the county should probably get some grace here."
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