WASHINGTON (CN) — Americans are caught in a conundrum: a pandemic is raging but it is also an election year, and lawmakers are feeling pressure to find the right solutions with just 145 days until the presidential election and a possible surge in coronavirus cases looming.
A House Administration subcommittee on elections met Thursday for a remote hearing to consider these challenges and weigh the merits of mail-in and absentee voting in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic ,which has infected over 2 million Americans and killed over 113,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Though mail-in voting has been an American staple since the Civil War, for President Donald Trump and many other Republicans the concept has fast become unwelcome and is often the subject of intense criticism underpinned by unproven allegations of rampant fraud or abuse.
During Thursday’s hearing, the sole Republican and ranking member of the subcommittee, Congressman Rodney Davis of Illinois, balked at the notion of widespread absentee voting. He argued the call by Democrats to drastically ramp up federal assistance that would make mail-in voting more accessible is overreach, but also is not feasible.
“I support states increasing capacity for mail-in voting but to suggest every state can dramatically increase that capacity is ridiculous,” Davis said.
While Democrats conceded that the abbreviated timeline and pandemic have undoubtedly upped the complexity factor at polls this year, they pointed to the House-passed Heroes Act as a viable but currently ignored tool to meet the election security and safety demands of the day - not detract from them.
The $3 trillion package, passed by the House in May but untouched by the Senate, allots $3.6 billion for a wide variety of voting security measures like the shoring up of supplies like personal protective equipment for poll workers who are often elderly and may be less inclined to volunteer this season during the pandemic.
The legislation also expands voting rights by amending a 2002 law known as the Help America Vote Act to make a sworn signature sufficient proof to vote on election day in all states. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has signaled that the legislation is dead on arrival in his chamber.
But for Democrats like subcommittee chairwoman Marcia Fudge of Ohio, there’s still time to lobby for the bill’s passage while also chipping away at what she called a blatant myth of rampant mail-in voter fraud.
“I think it is so misleading to talk about fraud. It’s just foolishness,” she said Thursday.
According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, over the last 20 years just 1,285 instances of proven voter fraud have been reported, leading to just 1,110 criminal convictions, out of hundreds of millions of votes cast. Parsing it further still, just 204 of those cases involved the specific use of a fraudulent ballot and of that same group, only 143 cases ended in a criminal conviction.
These statistics were glossed over during testimony from Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, who cited a 2016 ballot controversy in California where 83 ballots were reportedly sent to a single address.
Though the Los Angeles County Registrar’s office never confirmed the exact number of ballots sent to the single address, a spokesperson confirmed last month amid renewed social media attention on the 2016 case that there was a “bug” in the state’s election management system that forced multiple records to update inadvertently when changes were made to a voter’s information before a previous session was closed out.
“You would punish the many to catch one. That’s not the American way,” Fudge said. “We talk about cheats. We talk about 83 ballots going to one address? If an office didn’t catch that, I think the office made the mistake. I think at some point we have to all do what is right for the people of this country.
She added, “We cannot continue to spread these misleading and false statements about this widespread fraud. It doesn’t exist, you have no proof it is, you talk about it and you have not one iota of proof to support it.”
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, urged lawmakers opposed to expanding election safety measures to consider the greater implications of heading into November unprepared.
“Preserving our democracy hinges on providing sufficient funding to states for the safe and fair administration of elections which requires an additional $3.6 billion on top of the $400 million allocated in the CARES Act,” Clarke said. “Congress should mandate no-excuse absentee balloting for federal elections this year so any voter with preexisting conditions or concerns about Covid-19 can choose to vote by mail.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, appeared floored by opposition to mail-in ballots amid a pandemic that is still unfolding.
“We have elderly people who are separated from their children, their children don’t want to see them because they want to make sure they are not the reason they get sick but they have [a mail-in voting requirement] to have two witnesses in Alabama and one witness in Louisiana… The opposition is illogical and difficult to understand,” she said.
Ifill added, “This is a voting feature that goes back to the 1800s when people in military were allowed to vote by mail. We send ballots overseas to citizens living temporarily abroad without issue or concerns about fraud. So we can send ballots down the street to ensure that people in the middle of a global pandemic, that they…disproportionately people of color, can vote.”
According to the Covid Racial Data Tracker, African Americans comprise a quarter of the nation’s Covid-19 deaths though they only account for 13% of the entire U.S. population.
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