Will Coronavirus Make the Country Listen to Ron Wyden’s Vote-by-Mail Pitch?

It’s tough to maintain social distancing at a polling station. Oregon’s senior senator has been pushing for a national vote-by-mail policy.

By Julia Silverman March 18, 2020

For years now, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has been beating the vote-by-mail drum, trying to get the entire country to adopt the system pioneered by Oregon back in 1998, increasing voter turnout and decreasing election costs. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, his moment may have finally arrived. 

Last week, as the country started to truly come to grips with the impact of the virus, Wyden introduced a bill earmarking $500 million to help states handle voting disruptions during the pandemic. The proposal would give everyone access to a mail-in ballot, with prepaid postage and self-sealing, germ-combatting envelopes, if at least a quarter of the country’s governors wind up declaring a state of emergency due to coronavirus. (Eds Note: Late Wednesday, Wyden's office released an updated version of the bill, with Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar as co-sponsors, removing the requirement for state of emergency declarations. The new version of the bill is available here. ) 

Yesterday, as Joe Biden swept past Bernie Sanders in three more primaries, Wyden’s bill started to look pretty prescient. From the New York Times came reports of poll workers, many of whom are elderly, not showing up for shifts in busy Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Cook County, Illinois; turnout was below expectations in what had been a hot presidential primary season for Democrats.  

Meanwhile in Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and the head of the state’s health department closed polling stations postponed the primary due to coronavirus; four other states have followed suit. 

“Every day helps our cause,” Wyden told Portland Monthly on Wednesday. “It is right now a hugely important public safety issue.” 

What’s standing in the way? Republicans have traditionally been quite suspicious of vote-by-mail, citing concerns about ballot security. (Researchers at MIT’s Election Lab have concluded that fraud with vote-by-mail is very rare.) And to pass his bill, Wyden would need to persuade quite a lot of them. 

“There is no question that some people have looked at vote-by-mail and have said, ‘Some of the people who are going to vote by mail aren’t going to vote for us, [so] we have reservations about it,” Wyden says. “How can that possibly be a good rationale [for not] giving people a convenient way to vote in the middle of a pandemic? 

And here’s why the coronavirus pandemic might push the GOP to different thinking on vote by mail: Their base skews older, and it is older Americans, most at risk if they come down with coronavirus, who would stay away from polling stations in droves, not only for this spring’s primaries, but in November should the pandemic persist into the fall 

Only five states currently conduct elections solely via mail—Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Utah, and Colorado—but California has been moving in that direction. (Here’s a good breakdown of the current status of the rest of the states.) Many states are calling emergency legislative sessions to deal with the public health and financial ramifications of the coronavirus crisis, opening a door for conversations about election logistics as well. 

For his part, Wyden says he is making the rounds among Republican colleagues, trying to drum up support, and finding more and more of them willing to at least listen. 

“If a Republican senator faces the choice of either letting people they represent vote by mail or having no election at all, I think they will have trouble explaining to people why they are not voting at all,” Wyden says.  

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