Democrats have called for mandatory access to absentee voting across the country, but Republicans have pushed back, claiming it increases the risk of voter fraud.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams warned Wednesday that Congress must safeguard voting rights in the November election, with Covid-19 cases expected to make a resurgence this fall.
As coronavirus cases appear to level out, concerns are on the rise that in-person polling places pose a serious health risk, exposing voters and workers to the deadly virus. Voters waited in long lines Monday to cast ballots in seven states and the District of Columbia, in what many were calling the Super Tuesday of elections postponed due to the pandemic.
Lawsuits are playing out across the country to protect the right to vote safely during the pandemic, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and by state Democratic parties.
Testifying to the House Judiciary Committee, Abrams told lawmakers that ensuring equal access to voting by mail is critical with the election fast approaching.
“The solution to promote both public health and participation in our democracy is to expand access to vote by mail, to establish uniform guidelines for 2020, so that where we live in our country will not diminish our right to participate in November’s elections,” Abrams said.
Democrats have called for mandatory access to absentee voting across the country, but the GOP, led by President Donald Trump, is pushing back, claiming it increases the risk of fraudulent ballots.
Colleagues across the aisle accuse Republicans of fighting for a political advantage and wanting to disenfranchise younger and minority voters who often cast ballots by mail in low numbers.
House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler said Wednesday that the United States cannot call itself a democracy if the government does not protect voting rights.
“We do not deserve that title if we deny you the right to cast your ballots this November — or if we force you to choose between exercising that right and protecting your own health,” said Nadler, a New York Democrat.
But Louisiana Representative Mike Johnson, a Republican, said the Democrats’ proposal creates a vast and broad federal mandate, arguing states know best how to run their elections.
“Those provisions will decrease public confidence in the election process at the worst possible time and increase the election’s susceptibility to fraud,” Johnson said.
But Abrams, speaking as founder and chair of Fair Fight Action, argued that in 2016 more than half of states reported no substantiated allegations of voter fraud, while others reported a small number of cases found to have not altered election outcomes.
“In the rare times where it does occur, we catch it and we prosecute,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told the committee.
Abrams also pointed to GOP candidate Mike Garcia winning the special election in California’s 25th District, formerly represented by Democrat Katie Hill, in a vote-by-mail election during the coronavirus outbreak as evidence that the practice does not create a partisan advantage.
“This finding confirms a fundamental truth: Our elections should not be partisan,” Abrams said.
“Selections we make will be cast along party lines, but the process of determining our leadership should not be,” she continued. “Leaders of both parties should want higher participation in our democracy, regardless of who wins.”
But stressing that the solution does not lie in mail-in ballots alone, Abrams called on Congress to also scale up funding for early in-person voting and extended hours at polling places on Election Day.
“Don’t pick one or the other,” she said, reminding the committee that mail-in ballots are not accessible for Americans with certain disabilities, language barriers and those who are displaced.
“We are not trying to force states to conform in exact ways to save elections, but we’re trying to set a floor for what the basic understanding of being able to participate in our democracy looks like in the midst of pandemic,” Abrams added. “We’re setting a floor, not a ceiling.”
Republicans continued to push back against Abrams’ pleas, with Georgia Representative Doug Collins drilling her on the use of “uncontroverted” to describe the link between the April primary election held in Wisconsin and an increase in the state’s coronavirus cases.
“That is probably not a provable statement,” the top GOP member on the committee said.
Wisconsin health officials have confirmed that more than 65 people who tested positive for Covid-19 more than two days after the election reported they had voted in person or worked the polls, but they also faced other possible exposures. Abrams responded to the congressman’s attack by saying there is a direct correlation based on the evidence.
Republicans also went after Abrams by arguing voters in all 50 states can request mail-in ballots. She said voting by mail is not a choice for many Americans in states where there is not the infrastructure in place to distribute and process requested ballots.
Dale Ho, voting rights project director for the ACLU, agreed with Abrams. In Wisconsin, election officials are struggling to process five times the number of requests for mail-in ballots that they saw in 2016, while in Pennsylvania requests are up 18-fold.
“More voters than ever want to use it,” Ho said, warning: “And states can’t cope with that.”
The upcoming election presents the greatest challenges since Americans went to the polls in 1864 during the Civil War, Ho told lawmakers, adding that Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas are the states with the most restricted access to voting by mail.
Democratic Representative Steve Cohen noted those five, including his home state of Tennessee, were once slave states.
“It’s interesting that there’s some connection there, I suspect,” Cohen said, denouncing racism as America’s original sin. “Old times there are not forgotten.”