Voting Rights Disputes, Court Battles 04/08 06:21
(AP) -- Wisconsin's chaotic primary may just be the beginning. Both major
parties are preparing for a monthslong, state-by-state legal fight over how
citizens can safely cast their ballots should the coronavirus outbreak persist
through November's election.
The outcome of the court battles --- expected to litigate mail-in voting
rules, voter identification requirements and safe access to polls --- may have
a significant impact on how many people turn out to vote in hundreds of
elections across the country, including the White House race. It will likely
play out in presidential battlegrounds amid an already roiling debate over
voting rights and protecting access to the ballot.
"We have already seen more litigation, even before COVID, than ever before
in 2020," said Marc Elias, a prominent attorney who represents the Democratic
Party on voting issues. "What COVID has done is added fuel to that fire."
Elias said he expects to file lawsuits within the coming weeks against
states that Democrats argue haven't taken adequate steps to protect voters and
poll workers during the outbreak. The party is pushing steps to make it simpler
to request and return mail-in ballots.
Republicans are ready to fight back. President Donald Trump has already
tried to portray voting by mail as suspicious and warned that it could lead to
so many people voting that "you'd never have a Republican elected in this
country again." The Republican National Committee will spend some of the $10
million it set aside for presidential year election-related litigation to fight
back against Democratic lawsuits over the virus.
Tuesday's presidential primary in Wisconsin was a preview of confusion the
court fights can cause. After Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to delay the
election at the last minute, a court initially postponed and tweaked the rules
for the contest, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday night reinstate
many of the original rules and the election.
The election went on as planned --- although Milwaukee opened just five of
its 180 in-person polling places after hundreds of poll workers declined to
show up. Voters cast ballots while wearing protective masks and stood in long
lines, trying to keep a safe distance in a state where the virus has killed 92
Only five states send ballots to all voters to be returned through the mail.
Roughly one-third of states require a formal excuse to procure an absentee
ballot that can be sent in remotely, including the swing state of New
Hampshire, which has yet to designate the pandemic as a legitimate reason to
get a mail ballot. Other states crucial to the presidential contest, like
Wisconsin and North Carolina, require a witness to sign an application for a
mail ballot --- a requirement that can be difficult to meet for voters in
In Texas, the state Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit seeking to allow
the pandemic to qualify as a legitimate excuse for any voter seeking an
absentee ballot. The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, helped New
Mexico Republicans try to stop that state's Supreme Court from allowing a
request by county clerks to turn their June primary into an all-mail event.
The party argues that such changes are premature and, in some cases,
"Imposing a new system onto states unnecessarily will result in significant
problems in the November election, and it is critical we work to preserve the
integrity of the democratic process," said RNC spokeswoman Mandi Merritt.
The Trump campaign has laid down markers on what sort of changes it expects
state Republicans to fight. Vote-by-mail options can "play a role during a
pandemic by enabling at-risk voters to vote safely," legal counsel Justin Clark
said in a statement.
But, Clark added, "states should resist proposals that open the door to
voting fraud such as mailing ballots to voters who haven't asked for one."
Notably, some Republican secretaries of state, such as in Iowa and Ohio, have
already moved to send mail ballots out widely.
The brewing legal fight comes as Democrats' efforts to mandate no-excuse
mail-in voting have fizzled in Congress.
Senate Republicans prevented measures from making it into the stimulus bill
passed last month. Democratic leaders said the Wisconsin primary strengthened
their resolve to try again in the next bill, but voting rights groups are
pessimistic that will succeed.
Instead, advocates are trying to secure more funding for local elections
offices. They got $400 million in the last stimulus but estimate at least $1.6
billion more would be needed to enable the states to prepare for a radically
changed voting landscape in November.
"Making sure that our elections can be conducted fully and fairly is a very
high priority for us," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters
Still, voting rights advocates believe more litigation is inevitable as
parties look closely at vote-by-mail procedures. Elias said Democrats are
pushing for some standards, including a postage-paid return envelope, counting
ballots postmarked by Election Day, allowing voters to resolve issues arising
from questions about a signature and allowing groups to drop off and collect
mail ballots from voters.
Democrats argue the latter provision, dubbed "ballot harvesting," is
essential for elderly voters and others isolated by the pandemic. But it's
another red line for the Trump campaign.
Trump complained Tuesday that Democrats wanted to extend the time for mail
ballots to come in.
"Now, mail ballots, they cheat, OK? People cheat. Mail ballots are a very
dangerous thing for this country," said the president, who requested an
absentee mail-in-ballot last month for Florida's primary.
Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of
California-Irvine, said he expects "a lot of litigation, especially in states
that offer excuse absentee balloting." But, he added, fighting over elections
was already going to be intense before the outbreak.
Hasen tracks election litigation and said it soared to a high record in 2018
--- an unusual mark for a nonpresidential year. "Part of it is
hyperpolarization," Hasen said. "Part of it is that we have a lot of close
elections, and people realize that, in really close elections, rules matter."