U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says the developing election fiasco in Wisconsin has made him more determined to get Congress to enable states to offer mail-in ballots.
The Oregon Democrat secured $400 million, but not a national commitment, when Congress included the money in a $2 trillion federal response to the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"I am fighting like hell to get vote-by-mail included in the next COVID-19 relief package," Wyden said in a tweet Tuesday, April 7, when Wisconsin proceeded with a polling-place primary election despite an executive order by Gov. Tony Evers to stop it. "This cannot happen in November."
A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the governor lacked the authority to issue his order — and a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court declined to allow an extension for absentee ballots beyond Tuesday, unless they are postmarked or already in the hands of election officials.
Wyden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, formerly a Democratic presidential candidate, are the chief sponsors of federal aid to states for a mail-in option.
Their efforts got a boost from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said later she will press for $2 billion in the next pandemic relief package to enable states to offer mail ballots.
Wyden, in an interview last week, said his intent is not for the federal government to step into elections that are normally run by state and local governments. "What we are talking about is trying to give states some resources so that if citizens choose to vote by mail, they can come to their state to get a mail ballot," he said. "States and localities can keep all their other options, which are hard to do during a pandemic."
Many polling places in Wisconsin were consolidated so that there were fewer available to voters who cast ballots in person.
Wyden was the first U.S. senator to be elected by statewide mail ballots in January 1996. Although Oregon still barred mail ballots in primary and general elections back then, the 1995 and 1996 Senate votes were considered special elections.
Wyden defeated Republican nominee Gordon Smith, who went on to win Oregon's other Senate seat, which Republican Mark Hatfield vacated in the general election in November 1996. Smith lost to Democrat Jeff Merkley in 2008.
Wyden said both major political parties ended up on both sides of the issue — except for him and then-Secretary of State Phil Keisling, a Democrat and an advocate — until voters approved a 1998 measure that allowed for use of mail ballots in all statewide elections starting in 2000. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the other mail-in states are Washington, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah. Many other states offer no-excuse absentee voting or early voting; the latter still requires polling places.
A 1998 study by a University of Oregon professor concluded that, while mail voting led to increased voter participation rates, the results did not favor any political party.
"I am trying to convince Republicans that if we are staring at the prospect of having vote-by-mail or not being able to vote at all, it's not a close call," Wyden said. "We should give people that option."
President Donald Trump has opposed national mail-in voting. But Wyden said some Republicans, such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, are sounding a different tune. A panel in that state has recommended mail voting — the primary was postponed until June 2 — along with a proposal for at least one polling place in each county for in-person voting. (Oregon does allow voters to cast ballots in person at county elections offices.)
"I think there is starting to be a disconnect between Republicans at the local level and (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, who as far as I can tell has never been in favor of expanding the franchise in any way," Wyden said.
In another tweet on Tuesday, Wyden said: "Republicans are willing to put voters' lives at risk because they don't think they can win a fair election."
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