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Local Governments Are Stepping Up to Ease Voting

Where states are slow to act, cities and counties can make sure their voters can safely cast a ballot this year, writes Brennan Center Fellow Zachary Roth.

April 29, 2020
mail ballot
Elaine Thompson/AP

Over the last decade, local govern­ments — espe­cially larger cities — have emerged as trail­blazers for progress­ive policies, on everything from rais­ing the minimum wage to protect­ing public health to fight­ing discrim­in­a­tion. Now, they could be poised to play a crucial role in help­ing to build an elec­tion process that’s safe, fair, and access­ible amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Bren­nan Center has laid out the key solu­tions we need: expan­ded online voter regis­tra­tion, exten­ded dead­lines, and giving every­one both a vote-by-mail option and a safe in-person voting option. And the good news is that some states have taken the first steps to get there.

Virginia this month passed a voting over­haul that, among other steps, lets voters cast a mail ballot without an excuse. New Hamp­shire still requires an excuse for mail voting, but offi­cials there said this month that concerns about Covid-19 would qual­ify. And North Caro­lina moved quickly to expand access to online regis­tra­tion through the DMV.

But some states have been slower to act. Wiscon­sin failed to extend the dead­line for receiv­ing mail ballots for its primary this month, disen­fran­chising thou­sands of voters who didn’t get their ballots in time. And Texas has so far rebuffed calls to extend vote by mail to every­one. A judge ruled this month that fear of catch­ing Covid-19 is a good enough reason to use a mail ballot, but the state is expec­ted to appeal. (Pres­id­ent Trump, mean­while, has falsely claimed that vote-by-mail opens the door to wide­spread fraud and has argued against making voting easier in response to the pandemic on the grounds that doing so would hurt Repub­lic­ans, which is not the case.)

Inac­tion means that millions of would-be voters who can’t vote by mail could be forced to choose this fall between their health and their demo­cratic rights. But in recent weeks, local govern­ments have been taking import­ant steps — some­times in the face of oppos­i­tion from state lead­ers.

Perhaps no state exem­pli­fies this dynamic better than Pennsylvania. The GOP-controlled state legis­lature recently rejec­ted a meas­ure to send mail ballots to all registered voters. But the state’s two largest local govern­ments are taking their own steps to get their voters mail ballots.

Phil­adelphia city commis­sion­ers voted this month to provide prepaid post­age with all mail ballots for the state primary in June — help­ing Philly voters avoid being disen­fran­chised because they don’t want to risk their health with a trip to the post office. And Allegheny County, which includes Pitt­s­burgh, will send mail ballot applic­a­tions — also with prepaid post­age — to all registered voters. (Though, in a sign that there is more work to do, Allegheny County is also propos­ing to reduce in-person voting loca­tions by 85 percent). In both counties, the increased access to mail ballots may stay in place for the fall general elec­tion.

In Flor­ida, where vote by mail is well estab­lished and widely used (includ­ing by Pres­id­ent Trump), Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties all plan to send mail ballot applic­a­tions to all registered voters. Together, the three counties make up over a quarter of the state’s elect­or­ate.

And the city coun­cil in Milwau­kee, the biggest city in the state that’s perhaps most likely to determ­ine the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, voted last week to do the same thing — with pre-paid post­age included.

At least one local govern­ment effort to expand access to voting has brought push­back from the state. When Arizon­a’s largest county, Mari­copa, last month announced plans to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters not already signed up to get one, the state claimed Mari­copa lacked the author­ity to do the mail­ing, and a court blocked the move.

Of course, rely­ing on local govern­ments is an imper­fect approach, since voters in other parts of the state don’t bene­fit. It can also lead to voters getting conflict­ing inform­a­tion and being confused about the rules that apply to them. That’s why state-level action is the best solu­tion. But don’t be surprised if local efforts start to spread — thanks, improb­ably enough, to the power of partis­an­ship.

So far, they’ve mostly come from large cities, whose voters and elec­ted offi­cials tend to skew Demo­cratic. That could cause Repub­lican-lean­ing counties in those same states to worry that their voters will be at a disad­vant­age in statewide races unless they adopt the same reforms, creat­ing a race to the top. In swing states, where a few thou­sand voters either way could determ­ine the pres­id­en­tial race, that dynamic figures to be espe­cially strong.

There could even be a longer-term impact. If local govern­ments see that they can play a major role in making voting easier, it could open up a prom­ising new path for expand­ing voting access, even once the pandemic subsides — espe­cially in states that have resisted modern­iz­ing their systems. For instance, local govern­ments in states that don’t offer online voter regis­tra­tion may this year start to explore whether they can legally do so. And if they move forward with it, they’re unlikely to scrap it once the virus is beaten.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, some pion­eer­ing city and county govern­ments are recog­niz­ing that they can help with the urgent task of ensur­ing that the 2020 elec­tion is safe and fair. In this all-hands-on-deck envir­on­ment, it’s a trend that deserves to catch on widely.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.