Coronavirus Could Get U.S. to Vote by Mail

By: - March 13, 2020 12:00 am

A worker wears gloves while handling ballots from the Washington state primary election Tuesday at the King County Elections headquarters. Amid coronavirus fears, state and local election officials have taken steps to address the outbreak, even encouraging voting by mail. Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 13 to reflect the number of states that have made emergency declarations.

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

Primary season is a lousy time for a global pandemic.

As states across the country closed schools, banned large gatherings and encouraged liberal work-from-home policies this week, local election officials have been adamant that voters in upcoming primaries should vote by mail ahead of their election day.

Top election officials in Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — which have primaries for president and state and local positions in the coming weeks — told Stateline that along with working with state health agencies they are reminding voters of their no-excuse absentee ballot alternative. Florida and Arizona, which have primaries Tuesday March 17, also allow for no-excuse absentee voting.

The Wyoming Democratic Party, which was set to hold its presidential caucus April 4, canceled in-person voting and announced a system for voters to pick up and drop off ballots. In Wisconsin, the state elections commission voted in an emergency session to halt municipal-led, in-person voting assistance for nursing home residents during the state’s April 7 primary and opted instead for sending mail-in ballots.

Officials in Louisiana also announced this week that they would postpone April’s primary — the first state to do this.

“Sending people into nursing homes and other kinds of health care facilities is the wrong thing to do right now,” said Reid Magney, the Wisconsin commission’s public information officer.

At least 34 states and the District of Columbia already allow voters to cast their ballot via mail. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, meanwhile, run entirely vote-by-mail elections. Other states offer limited mail-in ballots, requiring voters offer specific excuses for not being able to vote in person.

But even with mail-in ballots, officials urged caution. Washington state, which had its primary this week, encouraged voters not to lick their mail-in ballots to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Instead, officials asked voters to use a wet sponge or cloth to seal them.

Given the coronavirus situation, some lawmakers want to take mail-in voting further.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced legislation that would require every state in the country to conduct November’s election entirely by mail if a quarter of states declare a state of emergency from an infectious disease or natural disaster. (As of Friday, 38 states and the District of Columbia had done so for coronavirus.) Voters could also drop off their hand-marked paper ballot under his bill.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.