COVID-19: Federal Bill Would Provide State Election Support

Concerns that the novel coronavirus could hamper turnout for the presidential elections have prompted legislation that could provide $500 million in funding to close gaps and allow for mail-in and drop-off ballot options.

The U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol
As governments impose increasing restrictions on public gatherings to help fight the novel coronavirus, many have wondered how the epidemic will affect voter turnout and the upcoming presidential election. 

A newly proposed bill would allocate $500 million in federal funding to help state governments avoid further disruption of the election. 

The Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020, introduced last week by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, would mandate that states develop election emergency response plans that include an option for voters to mail in or drop off a hand-marked paper ballot.  

A means of avoiding the long lines and large crowds traditionally associated with elections, states would be obligated to come up with such plans within 30 days of the bill's passage.

States would be required to provide a means by which voters could request absentee ballots electronically, that they accept ballot requests up until five days before an election and accept mailed ballots that have been postmarked by election day. States would also be obligated to provide prepaid postage and self-sealing envelopes to voters to mail in their votes. 

Much of the federal grant monies sent would be used by states to pay for postage and high-speed scanners that allow for high-volume absentee vote counting. 

“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Wyden said in a statement. “When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site. This is a nonpartisan, commonsense solution to the very real threat looming this November.”    

The bill's obligatory response plans would go into effect automatically after 25 percent of states in the country declared a coronavirus-related state of emergency or could be implemented at the discretion of a state's governor. The plans would remain in effect for all federal elections until 180 days after a state declared that the emergency had ended, according to the bill text.

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.
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