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Local Governments Can Lead on Vote by Mail

An election worker handles vote-by-mail ballots in Renton, Washington, on March 10, 2020.

There is no question that the coronavirus pandemic will make it a challenge to ensure that every eligible citizen can vote safely. One key step to overcoming that challenge—which some states are already pursuing—is to ensure that as many people as possible can vote by mail. For example, Michigan is sending vote-by-mail applications to all registered voters, and California is going further by sending all registered voters a vote-by-mail ballot. However, some states are failing to act. In the absence of state-level leadership, localities are taking the lead, opting to send absentee ballot applications with prepaid return postage to every registered voter. By taking such steps, localities can have a significant effect on expanding access to the ballot box—particularly considering that a relatively small number of major counties can reach the majority of voters in their respective states.

Without changes to state law, localities cannot send absentee ballots to voters who have not requested them, but they can send out absentee ballot applications. Every locality in a state that allows no-excuse absentee voting should take this step, which has the potential to help many more voters safely cast a ballot.

Localities in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have led the way. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) made some relatively minor changes, at the request of local election officials, to ease the burden of counting absentee ballots. However, the state has no plan to send absentee ballot applications to all voters, and state officials—including the governor—are fighting a lawsuit that seeks to make voting by mail more accessible by, for example, requiring prepaid postage on mail-in ballots. In response to inaction at the state level, officials in some of the most populous counties in Florida have said that they will send vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter. Broward County, the most populous county in Florida, was the first to take this step. Broward County’s Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci wrote to the Broward County Commission that “[t]here is little doubt that the virus will have an impact on both the August and November elections.” Palm Beach County, the second-largest county in the state, followed suit, as did Miami-Dade County and Seminole County. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties will also send vote-by-mail applications to voters. Collectively, these six counties represent almost 3.8 million registered voters—40.2 percent of registered voters in the state—who all will receive absentee ballot applications with return postage prepaid.

In Pennsylvania, state officials have encouraged their constituents to vote by mail, but there is no indication that they plan to send mail-in ballot applications to voters statewide. Officials in Allegheny County, however, have stated that they will send absentee ballot applications, along with prepaid postage, to all registered voters. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald stated that “[county officials] hope that voters will continue to seek mail-in ballots as it is the safest option … during this pandemic.” Officials in Luzerne County have also said that they will send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the county. Because these two counties have adopted this measure, almost 800,000 voters in Pennsylvania—12.7 percent of the state’s voting population—will receive mail-in ballot applications.

Other counties in these states and beyond should also consider mailing absentee ballot applications to their residents. According to CAP analysis, if the 10 most populous counties in Florida sent absentee ballot applications to resident registered voters, they would reach about 5 million Floridians—57.1 percent of the state’s registered voters. Similarly, if the 10 most populous counties in Pennsylvania sent absentee ballot applications to their constituents, about 2 million Pennsylvanians—54.1 percent of the state’s registered voters—would receive their ballot applications in the mail.

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Moreover, leadership at the local level could pressure more states to send mail-in ballot applications to registered voters statewide. Following Wisconsin’s primary election in April, which proceeded despite warnings from health officials that adequate precautions were not in place, the Milwaukee Common Council announced that it would mail ballot applications to all of the city’s 300,000 registered voters. Less than three weeks later, the Wisconsin Elections Commission—made up of three Republicans and three Democrats—voted unanimously to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the state.

Encouraging vote by mail is not the only necessary step to ensure access to voting during the pandemic. It is critical that officials also provide safe, in-person voting options, which many Americans depend on. In addition, Congress should pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which would provide $3.6 billion to help conduct safe elections—at least half of which is specifically designated for local governments. But time is of the essence. Officials at every level of government, including the local level, need to take whatever immediate steps they can in order to have orderly and safe elections in November. That includes sending out absentee ballot applications with prepaid return postage.

Without precautions to safeguard public health, there is a serious risk that fewer people will be able to vote in November—and that those who do will put themselves at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. In prior work, the Center for American Progress has outlined numerous steps that states can take to ensure that every American can vote safely and securely. But even in the absence of state action, local officials can make a big difference by encouraging every voter who is able to vote by mail to do so. They may even find that states will follow their lead.

Alex Tausanovitch is the director of Campaign Finance and Electoral Reform at the Center for American Progress. Hauwa Ahmed is a research associate for Democracy and Government at the Center.