The COVID-19 pandemic has given a greater sense of urgency to campaigns already underway to expand mail-at-home voting and to grant non-salaried workers time off to vote. Extending voting rights and expanding voter participation are a core tenet of American values and a central part of our history, as is resistance to such efforts. This is the first in a series of updates capturing the accelerating progress in protecting and expanding voting rights for all Americans. —George Linzer, Executive Editor
Maryland Allows Vote By Mail
As the coronavirus began its rapid spread, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) quickly moved a statewide primary election to June 2 from the original date, April 28. For the first time ever in Maryland, elections would be conducted largely by mail. Governor Hogan proclaimed in a March 17 announcement that one specific vote-by-mail election to restore representation of the 7th Congressional District would be allowed to take place on April 28. Hogan stated it was imperative to fill the congressional seat of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Baltimore), who died last October. (Longtime Baltimore Democrat Kweisi Mfume won that election on April 28.)
Because COVID-19 infections in the state were increasing precipitously, the governor announced on April 10 that the primary will also be conducted with all registered, eligible voters receiving ballots in the mail.
“Free and fair elections are the very foundation of American democracy and while there are many valid reasons for unease and uncertainty right now, ensuring that the voices of Maryland’s citizens are heard shouldn’t be one of them,” said Governor Hogan.
Voters also have a choice of returning their ballots by mail or at each county’s designated box location. A limited number of in-person voting centers will be open for the primary election. The Baltimore Sun reported that this new approach would alter vote counting, “likely lengthening the amount of time it will take to get results from the primary.”
Virginia Makes It Easier to Vote
Due to the COVID-19 virus, many states no longer require an excuse in order to obtain an absentee ballot. On April 12, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) signed several new laws that expand access to voting, including a “no excuse required” status that will both help voters more easily obtain absentee ballots by mail and permit earlier in-person voting at the local registrar’s office, starting 45 days before an election.
“Voting is a fundamental right, and these new laws strengthen our democracy by making it easier to cast a ballot, not harder,” said Governor Northam. “No matter who you are or where you live in Virginia, your voice deserves to be heard.”
Other expanded voting rights were passed into Virginia law:
- No voter photo ID is required in order to cast a ballot;
- Election Day (Nov. 3 this year) will be a new state holiday, further giving Virginians time to vote. The new holiday repeals and replaces the Lee-Jackson Day holiday, which honored the two Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson;
- Absentee voting timelines and in-person polling hours now are longer, with polling now ending at 8pm rather than 7pm; and
- Automatic voter registration will be activated for individuals accessing services at a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office or on the DMV website.
Two organizations and some individual voters have asked the US District Court in Lynchburg, VA, however, to stop the state from requiring a witness signature on mailed absentee ballots during the pandemic. Currently, the code requires that a person open the absentee ballot in front of a witness, cast the vote, and have both the voter and the witness sign the return envelope, which defies the new guidelines on avoiding COVID-19 transmission. Because of those guidelines, the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union say that the witness requirement would keep significant numbers of votes from being cast.
The next elections are local and will be held on May 19, 2020, and primaries will be on June 23, 2020, for state and some local offices. Each of these elections is being held two weeks later than the original dates due to COVID-19 concerns.
It Just Got Easier – and Harder — to Vote in Kentucky
The legislature in Kentucky is both cooperating with and confounding the Governor’s office over voting rights expansion in the state. The state saw bipartisan progress on April 24 when Governor Andy Beshear (D) and Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) reached an agreement to allow no-excuse absentee voting in the upcoming state primary. The primary is scheduled for June 23.
In a press release, Adams said, “Through expanding absentee voting – with appropriate safeguards … we prevent Mother Nature from disenfranchising Kentucky voters, while we also protect the lives of both our voters and our poll workers.” The press release listed nine key points from the absentee voting plan that emphasize ease of participation and assurance of ballot integrity .
The state will not mail out ballots, but voters can apply for ballots to be mailed to them. Voters will not have to notarize their applications for absentee ballots, according to the new plan. Kentuckians will have to “prove identity with personally identifiable information”, but they won’t need a photo ID as proof.
For the general election in November, however, Kentuckians must have a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a vote–as recently mandated by Kentucky’s Republican-controlled state legislature. As expected, Governor Beshear vetoed legislature-approved language that required voter ID, and the legislature overrode the veto, with votes of 27 to 6 in the state Senate and 60 to 29 in the House (a Republican supermajority).
Republican leaders claimed that the ID requirements will make elections safer from voter fraud, a claim that has been made for years despite a lack of evidence that fraud is either commonplace or statistically relevant to election outcomes. The bill will add “guardrails in our voting procedures that will help cure vulnerabilities that exist,” said Sen. Robby Mills (R), lead sponsor of the measure. Governor Beshear, along with other Democrats and voting rights groups, condemned the very poor timing of such a requirement in the midst of the pandemic, when many state offices are closed to the public, IDs are more difficult to procure, and IDs or papers might have to be handled by election officials.
Office of the Governor Ralph S. Northam, “Governor Northam Signs Sweeping New Laws to Expand Access to Voting”, Apr 12, 2020, https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/all-releases/2020/april/headline-856055-en.html, accessed Apr 28, 2020
Caleb Stewart, “Va. Lawmakers pass bill to end Lee-Jackson Day and make Election Day a holiday”, Associated Press reported on WHSV.com, Feb 24, 2020, https://www.whsv.com/content/news/Va-lawmakers-pass-bill-to-end-Lee-Jackson-Day-and-make-Election-Day-a-holiday-568146831.html, accessed Apr 28, 2020
Justin Mattingly, “Lawsuit seeks to stop Virginia from enforcing witness requirement for absentee voting during pandemic”, The Daily Progress, Apr 17, 2020, https://www.dailyprogress.com/news/state/lawsuit-seeks-to-stop-virginia-from-enforcing-witness-requirement-for-absentee-voting-during-pandemic/article_63b998d9-5b62-588b-974f-55731bc33c2a.html, accessed Apr 23, 2020
General Assembly of Virginia, “Virginia Acts of Assembly—Chapter; An act to amend and reenact §§ 24.2-416.1, 24.2-452, 24.2-612, 24.2-700, 24.2-701, 24.2-701.1, 24.2-702.1, 24.2-703.1, 24.2-703.2, 24.2-705.1, 24.2-705.2, 24.2-706, 24.2-709, and 24.2-1004 of the Code of Virginia, relating to absentee voting; no excuse required”, Apr 11, 2020, https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?201+ful+HB1ER, accessed Apr 22, 2020
Office of the Governor Larry Hogan, “Governor Hogan Issues Proclamation to Postpone April 28 primary, Implement Vote-By-Mail System to Fill 7th Congressional District Seat”, Mar 17, 2020, https://governor.maryland.gov/2020/03/17/governor-hogan-issues-proclamation-to-postpone-april-28-primary-implement-vote-by-mail-system-to-fill-7th-congressional-district-seat/, accessed Apr 23, 2020
Maryland State Board of Elections, “Important Updates”, April 2020, https://www.elections.maryland.gov/, accessed Apr 22, 2020
Emily Opilo, “Maryland’s June 2 primary will be conducted by mail with limited in-person voting, governor orders”, Apr 10, 2020, https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/elections/bs-md-pol-primary-hogan-decision-20200410-rvphpqz4mjfqdpnfrhjrifyqxm-story.html, accessed Apr 23, 2020
RepresentUS, “Take Action to Pass Vote by Mail during Coronavirus”, 2020, https://represent.us/vote-home-covid19/?akid=62833.928603.Hm4n57&rd=1&t=3, accessed Apr 28
Press release, “Secretary of State Adams Offers Details on Plan for June 23 Election”, State of Kentucky, Apr 24, 2020, https://kentucky.gov/Pages/Activity-stream.aspx?n=SOS&prId=310, accessed Apr 28, 2020
Fort Thomas Matters, “Secretary of State Releases Plan for June 23 Primary Election”, Apr 24, 2020, http://www.fortthomasmatters.com/2020/04/secretary-of-state-releases-plan-for.html, accessed Apr 28, 2020
Mark Vanderhoff, “Kentucky lawmakers override Gov. Beshear’s veto of voter ID measure”, WLKY TV from the Associated Press, Apr 14, 2020, https://www.wlky.com/article/kentucky-lawmakers-override-gov-beshear-veto-of-voter-id-measure/32149759, accessed Apr 23
Elise Viebeck, “Kentucky legislature overrides veto of GOP voter ID measure”, The Washington Post, Apr 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/kentucky-legislature-overrides-veto-of-gop-voter-id-measure/2020/04/15/dc23fa7a-7f29-11ea-9040-68981f488eed_story.html, accessed Apr 22, 2020
Kentucky State Board of Elections, “Absentee Voting” and “Frequently Asked Questions”, 2020, https://elect.ky.gov/Voters/Pages/Absentee-Voting.aspx, accessed Apr 23, 2020