On the surface, the idea of conducting elections mainly by mail appears deceptively simple. It evokes images of a serious-minded citizen at the kitchen table, poring over information about candidates before thoughtfully marking a ballot, slipping it in an envelope and dropping it in the corner mailbox.
But the history of recent elections show that, even though such absentee ballots have accounted for only a quarter or so of the total vote, the system has faced serious obstacles. Suddenly doubling or even tripling the mail-in volume, which looks very plausible this November because of the coronavirus, will only magnify those challenges.
Compounding the problems is how the issue has become yet another partisan fight — with Democrats all in favor and President Trump pushing Republicans to oppose efforts to make voting by mail more available and reliable. The president's vastly overblown claims about a looming explosion of voter fraud, in particular, are overshadowing genuine worries about the abilities of election officials and the Postal Service to handle the coming surge of ballot envelopes.
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The Missouri Supreme Court will review the state's limitations on voting by mail, among the strictest being enforced in the country this spring, in case the governor rejects legislation relaxing the rules.
The appeal comes after a trial court judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to make absentee ballots available to everyone in the state starting with the Aug. 4 primary.
Exposure to the coronavirus should be reason enough to vote by mail, and the state's rebuffing of that valid excuse during the pandemic is unconstitutional, the suit maintains. It's the same argument being made by voting rights groups hoping to force relaxation of excuse requirements in the remaining handful of states that have not done so voluntarily: Texas, most prominently, plus, Tennessee, Mississippi and Connecticut.
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Minnesota has agreed to abandon two of its most unusual and harsh election rules, which have restricted help for people casting ballots — the freshest victory in the barrage of voting rights litigation in this year's battleground states.
The state laws at issue bar candidates from helping others vote and say that no one else may help more than three people complete in-person or absentee ballots in any election. With the lawsuit settlement, announced Tuesday, Arkansas will be the only other state with such strict limits on providing voting assistance.
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The coronavirus has forced a fundamental reassessment of how best to allow citizens to both stay safe and carry out their most important civic responsibility — voting.
Almost half the states have already eased restrictions that would make it tougher to cast a ballot during the pandemic, and more may do so soon. But at the same time, six states now stand out as having the most restrictive voting rules in the country. And those hurdles will either disenfranchise or threaten the health of millions this year, assuming critical adjustments are not made soon and Covid-19 continues to upend normal life until fall.
6. Texas<p>The second-most-populous state does have five of the 11 policies in place. There are 17 days of early voting and Election Day voter centers; there are no ID or witness signature requirements when casting an absentee ballot; and late-arriving mail ballots get counted if postmarked on time. There is also a limited do-over policy when absentee ballots get rejected. But voter registration ends a month before Election Day, there's no way to register online and an excuse is required for an absentee ballot.</p><p>A Democratic state judge ruled this month that the pandemic is enough of a reason to use mail-in ballots, but GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton says he adamantly opposes the idea and is appealing. If he prevails, the state's numbers may look like 2018, when just 6 percent of the 15.6 million votes were by mail.</p>
5. Tennessee<p>Five of the policies are in place: 20 days for early voting, voting centers, online voter registration, no ID required for mail ballots and no one required to countersign a mail ballot. Registration is closed a month before the election, though, and the prospect of easing the excuse requirement for an absentee ballot is remote.<br></p><p>The General Assembly has altered several election laws this year but defeated a proposal to allow people to vote by mail because of the coronavirus. The debate may be revived when lawmakers return in June. Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett opposes the idea as too expensive. Mail ballots accounted for only 2 percent of the 4.2 million total cast 2018.</p>
4. Connecticut<p>The state has online and same-day registration, and does not require an ID or witness signature with a mail ballot. But there are no voting centers or early voting. And an absentee ballot application (which must be returned by mail or fax) allows only six narrow excuses for not voting in person — which is why only 6 percent of the state's 2.4 million voters used the mail last time.<br></p><p>After first rejecting the idea, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont three weeks ago asked state lawyers if he can issue an executive order allowing unfettered mail voting during the pandemic. He has twice delayed the presidential primary. It's now Aug. 11, the same day as nominating contests for Congress and the Legislature.</p>
3. South Carolina<p>The state has only a couple of the policies fully in place. Would-be voters may register online, but not within a month of the election. (And the application's demand of a full Social Security number, as in only four other states, is being challenged in a federal lawsuit.) No proof of identity is required with an absentee ballot, which may be returned in person ahead of time — but only by someone meeting precise excuse requirements. And very few do: Just 4 percent of the 1.7 million votes in 2018 were by mail.<br></p><p>Two lawsuits, one brought by the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, the other by the Democratic Party, ask a state judge to declare anyone in the state may vote absentee this year. One of the acceptable reasons for voting at home is a physical disability and the pandemic fits that definition, the lawsuits claim. GOP Attorney General Alan Wilson has not offered a response to that argument</p>
2. Missouri<p>The Show-Me State has shown little interest in policies that ease voting during the pandemic. Just three are in place: online registration, ID-free absentee balloting and postage-paid envelopes for returning those ballots. But there are no voting centers on Election Day and no places for casting a ballot ahead of time. That may help explain why 9 percent of 2.5 million votes cast in 2018 were mailed in — even though that required first mailing in an application providing an excuse to vote absentee.<br></p><p>The ACLU this month has sued in Missouri, as well. It argues that since standing in line at the polls is a health risk, and an acceptable excuse is illness or physical disability, "avoiding the contraction of the coronavirus" should be reason enough for absentee voting in the Aug. 4 primaries and the fall. Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft says he doesn't have authority to make that change.</p>
1. Mississippi<p>Perhaps it is not surprising the place with perhaps the longest and most notorious record of voter suppression tops the list of least hospitable states for voting during this year's crisis. There is no in-person early voting. There are no Election Day voting centers. Registering online is not allowed, registering by mail has to be done a month before the election — and, unlike every other state, applicants who are naturalized citizens must provide documentary proof.<br></p><p>Mississippi is also alone in having enacted only one of the 11 top policies that make balloting easier in a pandemic: No ID is required to vote by mail. But applying for an absentee ballot has to be done on paper, and the form allows just two acceptable excuses — being disabled or being out of town on Election Day.</p><p>In the last election, only 7 percent of nearly 1 million ballots cast in 2018 arrived by mail — and that share is unlikely to grow this time. The state's primaries were in March, before the public health emergency took hold, and the conservative Republican state government has done nothing to signal interest in easing vote-by-mail rules for November.</p>
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