President Donald Trump urged Republicans to “fight very hard” against mail-in elections during the coronavirus pandemic — but the party’s most effective tactic to impede absentee voting may be just quietly running down the clock.
The handful of American vendors that sell mail-in election equipment told BuzzFeed News they have been flooded with phone calls this month from local election officials who anticipate a surge of requests for absentee ballots. More Americans than ever are expected to try voting from home in the general election, particularly after seeing crowds at polling sites during Wisconsin’s primary, which health officials have now linked to 19 new infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Yet the companies can’t sell the thing election officials need most: time.
“I would call it an emergency situation,” said Carl Amacker, whose company, BlueCrest, makes Relia-Vote, a system that handles outbound mail ballots and processes them once they’re returned.
BlueCrest currently supplies vote-by-mail systems to counties around the United States, yet like other leaders in the industry, it can’t expand those systems overnight. “Counties need to act very, very quickly,” Amacker told BuzzFeed News, explaining that it can take months to build and install mail-in election systems. “The problem is we are going to run out of time.”
Despite many inquiries in recent weeks, there are “not a lot of orders yet,” added Jeff Ellington, president of Runbeck Election Services, which makes envelope sorters, prints mail-in ballots, and develops software to manage mail-in elections.
“Every day they waffle on the decision, the harder it’s going to be to pull it off in time,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The capacity is there right now, but the longer the decisions are delayed, the fewer and fewer options that will exist for states.”
The emerging consensus among industry leaders and election experts is that expanding voting by mail for November — particularly in large jurisdictions that haven’t processed a huge number of absentee ballots in the past — could require making commitments in the next few weeks. Smaller counties, with just a few thousand voters, could accommodate more mail-in ballots without many changes.
Getting ready for a big spike in mail-in ballots can involve months of preparation: In addition to building new machinery, the mere act of printing ballots is complex, as neighbors can be in different legislative districts, so ballots have numerous variations. Mail-in elections also entail constructing multilayer security envelopes, assigning each envelope a barcode for tracking, and installing computer systems to help verify voter signatures upon return.
Delaware Election Commissioner Anthony Albence, a Democrat, said in a phone call with reporters this month that he’s “preparing for what we anticipate will be an increase of absentee voting,” adding, “We are going to have to shift our model to acquire additional scanners and printers.”
But decisions from many state and county election boards are frozen as Congress's first batch of emergency money trickles down slowly, and additional federal election relief is stuck in political limbo.
“We can pound our fist on the table and say they need to order today,” said Steven Sockwell, the vice president of Hart InterCivic, which provides scanners, software, and other voting services for mail-in elections.
“The reality is there are a lot of customers who can’t move yet because their bosses are saying, ‘Let’s see what happens with the federal funding,’” he said in a phone call. “There’s not a ton of orders yet, but there are a ton of quotes we’ve issued. Right now everyone is in a wait-and-see mode.”
The Nov. 3 election may feel distant, but there are unanswerable questions about when, and where, it will be safe again for Americans to cluster in groups to vote.
If local election offices get inundated with absentee ballot requests, and they’re incapable of mailing out and counting ballots within in timeframes set by state laws, the missed deadlines could result in disenfranchised voters, uncertainty, and lawsuits in a fraught presidential race and other elections across the country.
“The counties were already preparing for record numbers of people to vote in person,” Amacker said. “Now they’re preparing for record numbers voting by mail.”
“If the counties aren’t installed with the automated equipment and don’t have people trained, and testing completed, by the middle of September, you’ve missed the window for the November election,” he added.
It can take about eight weeks or more to produce big equipment, such as the envelope sorters the size of a bedroom, and some production has already ramped up. “These are relatively complicated pieces of machinery,” Amacker continued. “If by mid-May your equipment isn’t ordered and processed, it will be a challenge.”
It’s impossible to predict how many more people will vote by mail in November, however, partly because the rules are changing by the week. Seventeen states allow any registered voter to request a mail-in ballot, known as no-fault absentee voting, though court challenges could change that.
In Texas, a judge ruled on April 17 that any voter can cite the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to vote absentee — though Texas Republicans may appeal the case and court orders could come down to the wire. A lawsuit in South Carolina also seeks to expand no-fault absentee voting. In contrast, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans this week to mail absentee ballots to every voter who requests one for the June primary — a move that the state Republican Party claimed was unconstitutional.
More lawsuits, court rulings, legislative changes, and executive orders on who can vote absentee are all but guaranteed to become the norm between now and the fall — the question is if absentee voting is substantially expanded and voters request it, can local officials keep up?
The immediate problems turn on bureaucracy and partisanship. Although Congress approved $400 million to support this year’s election as part of the CARES Act, a coronavirus relief package in March, $100 million of that still hasn’t been distributed to states, Kristen Muthig, a spokesperson for the US Election Assistance Commission, told BuzzFeed News. Some state legislatures still haven’t taken the votes required to accept the funds.
And that won’t be nearly enough, according to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. The Democrat praised the first round of congressional support, but said in a phone call this month hosted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, “It was a helpful down payment — but it was just that, a down payment.”
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates it will cost roughly $2 billion to reinforce this fall’s election by making investments to print ballots, pay postage, install software that tracks ballots, and more. On Tuesday, Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he wants more election funding in the next relief package so “states have enough money to run them properly.”
Yet, it’s unclear if the Republican-controlled Senate will approve a bill that boosts mail-in voting, given that Trump told Republicans they should fight vote-by-mail because, he claimed, it would help Democrats. The GOP has tried to suppress voting for decades, particularly among people of color, and while voting by mail doesn’t favor either party, it does tend to increase turnout.
Even though researchers have repeatedly found voter fraud is extremely rare in all forms of elections, Trump claimed in an April 11 tweet, “Mail in ballots substantially increases the risk of crime and VOTER FRAUD!” He stoked the conspiracy theory again the next week, claiming at a White House briefing, “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters… They are fraudulent in many cases.”
Five states vote almost fully by mail, and most US adults, including most of those who identify as Republican, actually support voting by mail during the pandemic. And some Republican state officials have been open to mail-in elections.
Nevertheless, national party leaders have continued to carry Trump’s torch, including Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel. She argued on Fox Business this month that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud and that election reforms are a “liberal agenda...to take away the safeguards that ensure the integrity of the election process.” Senate Rules Committee Chair Roy Blunt also condemned Democrats’ push to fund mail-in elections, telling CNN, "We will not let Democrats exploit this public health emergency to expand the reach of the federal government into state and local elections.” Speaking broadly on the issue of more financial relief for states, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday said states should seek bankruptcy instead.
As Amber McReynolds — the former director of elections for Denver and CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute — put it, “The biggest barrier is decision-making at the political level.”
“Vendors need orders for equipment,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Can the vendors do it? Absolutely. Can we expand the vote-by-mail system? Absolutely. But if this drags on for weeks and decisions are slow, it’s not possible.”
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican who has called for more bipartisanship on congressional funding packages, said on the call with reporters, “It took five years in Washington state to move from polling places to all vote-by-mail.”
“We have to build in the capacity to do this — you have got to have the high-speed sorters, have to have the relationship with the post office,” she said.
Instead, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said, the most urgent goal is merely expanding the capacity for absentee ballots that many states already have. He intoned that we don’t want another “grotesque spectacle” like in Wisconsin, where Republicans successfully required thousands of voters to congregate at polling places during the pandemic’s apex. He said we are “not reinventing the wheel here. This is upscaling what is already taking place.”
Some states may be more prepared than others, like Florida, where no-fault absentee voting is already allowed and many large counties have some of the high-capacity equipment for absentee ballots. Yet even there, an association of county election officials sent a letter warning Gov. Ron DeSantis that the state cannot switch entirely to mail-in ballots this year, and they still face “a significant statewide shortage of poll workers for the 2020 elections.” Disputes over Florida’s vote-by-mail system blew up in a rash of lawsuits in 2018 during a highly watched recount in a close Senate race, and in their letter this month, election officials asked the governor to change rules for counting mail-in ballots.
At the same time, the Brookings Institution has found COVID-19 infections shifting in the country’s heartland, including the Midwest and South, where many states don’t currently allow no-fault absentee voting — a dynamic that could change in the coming months due to more lawsuits and legislative reforms. Election officials, Sockwell said, “are waiting to hear whether the state is going to change those rules or not.”
Amacker added, “You go to the middle of the country, they are going to struggle because they just haven’t put the laws on the books yet.” What happens if dozens of counties place orders all at once? “I think we probably will be able to support 25,” Amacker said of BlueCrest, “and then we will be out at that point.”
“We at Runbeck can’t take on all 50 states,” added Ellington. “Can we take 5 to 15? Sure, but we need to talk about it. As those orders come in, it will more or less be first come, first served.” As for the large sorting machines that counties may need, Runbeck “can produce three to five a month,” he said. “You can do the math.”
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