House Coronavirus Panel Shifts Focus to Election Security

Voters fill out their ballots during in-person voting in the Kentucky primary in Louisville on June 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Covid-19 pandemic is still raging just eight weeks before Election Day, prompting House lawmakers on Wednesday to make a bipartisan call for better election and public health safety measures nationwide as millions prepare to mail in their ballot or risk voting in person.

As the clock ticks down to Nov. 3 and early voting starts soon in some areas, Jim Clyburn, chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, urged state and local officials during a hearing Wednesday to ensure that recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Election Day are implemented quickly and completely.

The CDC released guidance in June for election officials, poll workers and voters, urging broad mask wearing at polling stations, strict social distancing, widespread use of disinfectants and improved ventilation, along with suggestions for crowd size management, including novel concepts like drive-up or curbside voting where permitted.

But perhaps most critically, according to lawmakers and voting rights advocates called to testify before the House panel, the CDC recommends polling places be opened early, kept open later and generally operate more flexibly to meet the needs of the public to exercise their right to vote amid the pandemic.

Primaries this spring and summer in Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin saw people waiting in line to vote for hours, and in some cases even standing in the rain donning garbage bags waiting their turn. Other voters were locked out of venues even as they stood in line, as the closure of polling places was widespread in numerous cities. In Milwaukee, for example, the city saw just 3% of its voting locations open during Wisconsin’s April primary.

This statistic set off alarm bells for Democratic lawmakers on the House coronavirus committee, which is tasked with conducting oversight of the federal response to the pandemic. In mid-August, the committee issued letters to secretaries of state for Florida, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin, asking the officials to make clear their plan for November.

Lawmakers sought voter turnout projections as well as data on the number of polling and early voting locations county by county, the number of drop boxes available for the general election, and the projected number of poll workers expected to assist voters in person this November. All of this would help Congress determine where states are at in terms of the crisis, panel members said.

“They must expand mail-in voting, drop boxes, and in-person voting while recruiting poll workers in order to maintain or increase the number of polling places open on Election Day, given the virus’ harmful impact on seniors,” Chairman Clyburn said of state and local officials who have reported a dip in poll workers this year because of the pandemic. “Younger Americans must be recruited to serve as poll workers in greater numbers than ever before. Every American who can work as a poll worker must do so. Your democracy needs you.” 

Wisconsin election officials reported needing at least 30,000 poll workers for the general election. But according to testimony from Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Badger State doesn’t think it will make that figure. It is instead planning to get help from the National Guard.

Civil rights groups are working “night and day” to recruit poll workers, Clarke said, but what is really needed is an infusion of federal funding to shore up states’ ability to hold fair elections. This funding would enable them to increase poll worker pay, thereby increasing the likelihood that workers will not only show up, but actually stay despite the risk to their health.

The House passed the $3.6 trillion Heroes Act in May, which allotted hundreds of millions for states to handle Election Day needs during the crisis. But it has since moldered in the Senate with little hope of passage as lawmakers continue the next round of relief negotiations.

Clarke also said that since March, her organization has filed over two dozen lawsuits seeking to protect voter rights during the pandemic.

“Georgia is the posterchild of voter dysfunction,” she said, pointing to the state’s last-minute changes to polling place times and locations in the June primary.

Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the Lone Star State is no better as it holds the distinction of being just one of a handful of states that have flatly refused to extend alternatives to voting in person.

“At least 750 polling locations have closed in Texas in recent years, and where Black and Latinx populations are growing, they are seeing the vast majority of closures,” Marziani said. “And that was before the pandemic. There is barely time for Texas to step up but that time is running out.”

Republicans on the committee, like ranking member Steve Scalise of Louisiana, were not opposed outright to absentee voting or creating alternatives for voters that follow CDC pandemic guidelines. But where agreement between Democrats and Republicans stopped short was in what Scalise called a “one-size-fits-all mandate” offered by Democrats in March that called for every person on a voting roll to be mailed a ballot.

Scalise argued without any evidence that this would lead to excessive voter fraud.

“House Democrats care more about winning the election than they do about election integrity,” Congressman Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican, claimed Wednesday after railing against California for implementing automatic voter registration.

The Golden State is one of more than a dozen that uses this process.

“If California wants to permit ballot harvesting and allow illegals to vote in their election, that’s their business, but don’t you dare try to tell Tennessee what we should do,” Green said.

Kerry Washington – actress, voting rights activist and chair of the advocacy group When We All Vote – leant some star power to the hearing Wednesday. Washington asked members to pass legislation that would increase Covid-19 relief funding for Black and Latin communities in particular, since they are statistically harder hit by the virus than the white population.

To those who may feel discouraged, Washington offered some succinct advice.

“When you stand in a long line to vote you have a chance to elect someone who can make it easier for you to vote the next time around. Wear a mask, bring water. Wear comfortable shoes, stay in line,” she said.

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