Americans just witnessed how coronavirus is impacting the voting process in real time in Wisconsin. Facing a massive shortage of poll workers, growing health risks and widespread disagreements among local lawmakers, the governor made an 11th-hour attempt to cancel in-person voting and reschedule the election, which the state’s Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader called unconstitutional and the Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked. Sixteen other states have already decided to postpone or alter their presidential primaries.
With the vast majority of states issuing stay-at-home orders and hundreds of thousands of Americans falling ill to this aggressive virus, Republican and Democratic election officials across the country are faced with a once-in-a-lifetime responsibility — to carry out full and fair elections during a pandemic. Many are already responding to increased requests for mailed ballots, early voting and online voter registration. Yet state and local officials, who are responsible for safeguarding our democracy, are telling us that they lack the necessary resources to meet this demand.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that preparation and early action are central to a competent response. The time to chart a course for a safe, secure, accessible election is now. If states don’t start to make changes to their election systems within the next few weeks, millions of Americans will be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote come November.
We believe that no American should ever have to make that choice. That’s why we’ve been fighting in the Senate to get three things done so that no American will have to do so: Expand no-excuse vote by mail to every state; expand early voting to at least 20 days in every state so that voters who vote in person, including voters with disabilities, can do so safely; and expand online voter registration.
As our Republican colleagues have pointed out in recent days, it will be up to the states to carry out the elections. But the federal government must provide states with the necessary funding to make those expansions possible. We serve on the two committees in the Senate responsible for appropriating funds and authorizing legislation for elections and represent the state (Oregon) that has led the way in instituting widespread vote by mail, so we know it takes resources to make the changes needed to meet the challenge we face.
That’s not a Democratic position or a Republican position. It’s a fact. States will need to be ready to print, process and receive millions of mailed ballots. They will need systems in place to accommodate greater demand for online voter registration. They will need to recruit and train new poll workers to run the election under these new circumstances — while older Americans, who have historically shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden of working the polls on Election Day, are the most at risk. They will need to ensure that every ballot is properly counted.
Experts estimate that these initiatives will cost roughly $2 billion. That’s what we called for in the third coronavirus relief package, but the final bill only included $400 million. We are hearing from a chorus of state and local elections officials from across the country confirming what we already knew to be true: That’s not enough.
We have faced challenges like this before, and we have met them. The United States held elections even during the Civil War and World War II. In every single U.S. election, military members, diplomats and development professionals overseas vote safely and securely by mail — not to mention that President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump voted by absentee ballot in the Florida primary last month and in the 2018 midterm elections.
We can do this, but we have to act now to ensure that every American has access to the ballot box this fall, no matter what the public health situation is on Nov. 3. That’s why the next federal relief package must include sufficient funding and direction to states to expand vote by mail, early voting and online voter registration. Republicans and Democrats should be able to work together to make this happen. The very integrity of our democracy requires that we get this right.
Sens. Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden are Democratic senators from Delaware, Minnesota and Oregon, respectively. Follow them on Twitter: @ChrisCoons, @amyklobuchar and @RonWyden