Coronavirus emerges as major threat to US election process

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. election officials looking to construct a safe voting system in a worsening coronavirus pandemic are confronting a grim reality: there may not be enough time, money or political will to make it happen by the November election.

The possibility the pandemic could last into the fall, or flare again as millions of voters are set to choose the nation’s next president, has state and local officials scrambling for alternatives to help keep voters safe.

The most-discussed proposals are to make mail-in voting available to all eligible voters nationwide, and to expand early in-person voting to limit the crowds on Election Day.

But election officials say those changes will be costly and complex in a country where traditional voting remains ingrained. About six of every 10 ballots were cast in person on Election Day in 2016, Census data shows.

Democrats fell far short in their effort to include at least $2 billion to help virus-proof the November elections as part of a $2.2-trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that was passed by the U.S. House on Friday. The package devotes $400 million to bolster vote by mail and early voting, expand facilities and hire more poll workers.

“Congress failed to include sufficient, urgently needed funds in the stimulus to help states run elections in a time of pandemic,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “This could wreak havoc in November.”

Republicans opposed to spending big on balloting changes viewed it as an attempt by Democrats to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on states. Democrats said the price tag reflected the enormity of the task of safeguarding the vote during a pandemic.

Benjamin Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which provides resources and information to election officials nationwide, said the change requires planning — and time is running out.

“You can’t just flip a switch and vote by mail, this is a very involved process,” Hovland said. “A lot of what is possible in November will be determined now.”

Some officials in both parties still worry they could lose out in a nationwide vote-by-mail system.

Democrats fear it could disenfranchise minorities and low-income voters who tend to move more frequently or lack reliable access to mail service. Republicans cite concerns about voter fraud, and they worry that older voters confused by a new voting system and rural residents with slow mail delivery could be left out.

Fears about the outbreak, which has now infected more than 85,000 Americans and killed over 1,200, have started to affect Americans’ intentions to vote. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken March 18-24, 63% of adults questioned said they were “completely certain” to vote in November. But that figure dropped to 56% when the respondents were asked to project their behavior if coronavirus were still a factor on Election Day.

“If nothing changes by November, there will be a lot of voters who are disenfranchised,” said Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for good-government watchdog Common Cause.

The health crisis has already upended the Democratic race to pick a challenger to face incumbent Republican President Donald Trump.

Three states scheduled to proceed with their April 4 Democratic nominating contests — Wyoming, Hawaii and Alaska — have scrapped in-person voting entirely and will only permit voting by mail. Ohio and at least eight other states pushed their primaries back to May or June.

Postponement looks unlikely for the November presidential election, which is set by law and would require action by Congress to move.

“The election is going to happen in November, so we have to put the procedures in place now to make sure it happens safely and fairly,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel for voting rights at the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.

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