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'Our Democracy Can Never Be an Afterthought': Congress Urged to Include Vote-by-Mail in Next Covid-19 Package

"Congress must continue to invest in our democracy this year or else we’ll face potentially catastrophic consequences."

Ballot Processing Manager Jerelyn Hampton sorts vote-by-mail ballots by party for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020. (Photo: Jason Redmond / AFP via Getty Images)

With fresh polling showing overwhelming support for a vote-by-mail system for the 2020 elections to ensure that people are able to cast ballots safely during the coronavirus pandemic, progressives on Tuesday intensified their demand for lawmakers to prioritize pro-democracy reforms in the next Covid-19 relief package.

In a letter (pdf) to all members of Congress, the advocacy group Common Cause called for the inclusion of funding for mail-in or absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), and other institutions which will keep Americans "safe, informed, connected, and represented" while the country fights the pandemic.

"As Congress addresses the public health emergency and the economic crisis, it is vitally important that the House and Senate also take steps to buttress key pillars of our democracy that are threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic," said Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn in a statement. "Our democracy can never be an afterthought regardless of the crises we face as a nation."

Common Cause called for a new expansion of the CARES Act including:

  • $4 billion in funding for the 2020 elections which would allow Americans to vote without sacrificing their health, by standardizing a vote-by-mail system across the country.
  • $2 billion to $3 billion per month during the pandemic to guarantee access to broadband so all Americans can stay informed of the public health and economic crises.
  • $5 billion to support local journalism.
  • Increased funding for the Census and the USPS, which Americans will rely on to ensure they are counted, given a mail-in ballot, and able to cast their votes.

Common Cause sent the letter shortly before House Democrats unveiled their proposal for a new relief bill building on the CARES Act. The proposal would allocate $3.6 billion to expand vote-by-mail and absentee voting systems, fund the USPS, and expand coronavirus testing and relief for Americans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dismissed the bill as "exactly the wrong approach" to the crisis and said Senate Republicans were at work on a bill that would protect businesses from "frivolous lawsuits" should employees contract the coronavirus at work.

Stand Up America called on Americans to urge their senators to back the Democrats' proposal.

Common Cause's letter echoed a wider call by pro-democracy groups for provisions to protect the 2020 elections, following in-person elections last month in Wisconsin which were linked to at least 40 cases of Covid-19 weeks later. 

Fighting Democrats' bid to protect the USPS, Republican lawmakers and President Donald Trump have attacked the cherished public service in recent weeks, with the president calling it "a joke" and threatening last month to withhold Covid aid from the agency unless it dramatically raised shipping prices for the public.

"President Trump is out of touch with everyday Americans who want more options to cast their ballot." 
—Karen Hobert Flynn, Common Cause

The president has also falsely claimed that a vote-by-mail system would increase the amount of so-called "voter fraud" that takes place during the election. 

"Mail ballots, they cheat," Trump said last month, days after Wisconsin voters were forced to take part in the in-person election. "Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters."

Experts say that all fraudulent voting is extremely rare, and the five states which conduct elections almost entirely by mail have reported very little fraud in the system. 

A Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 64% of Americans favor a vote-by-mail system, especially in light of the pandemic, including 84% of Democrats and 68% of independents who support it. 

More than three-quarters of Republican respondents to the poll said they believed a mail-in ballot system would increase the amount of fraud in the election, while only 48% of independents and 27% of Democrats said the same.

"President Trump is out of touch with everyday Americans who want more options to cast their ballot," wrote Hobert Flynn in an op-ed she published at The Hill Monday. "Election officials and legislators considering changes to voting rules should not fall for Trump's baseless attacks and instead put partisan politics aside to protect public health and ensure every eligible American can cast their ballot. Expanding vote by mail options is a great way to ensure more Americans can cast their vote in a safe manner."

In its letter, Common Cause called the pandemic an "unprecedented challenge" which Congress must "rise to meet."

"Congress must continue to invest in our democracy this year or else we'll face potentially catastrophic consequences—millions of disenfranchised voters, millions who can't complete the Census, and millions who are cut off from others."

The group also called on congressional leaders to provide the CARES Act Congressional Oversight Commission with the resources and staff it needs to complete its mission of overseeing economic stability measures put forward by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.

"Nearly seven weeks after the CARES Act was signed into law, no chair has been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Common Cause wrote. "Congressional leaders must immediately appoint a chair of the commission and ensure it has staff and office space. Congress must prioritize this commission to prevent this administration from further ignoring the law. "

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