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Democrats renew vote-by-mail push as coronavirus upends elections

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during an interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 1, 2020.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during an interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 1, 2020.ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats want to bolster mail-in voting and take other steps to make balloting easier this November, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, as congressional leaders staked out ground for their next major attempt to revive the economy and battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Pelosi’s proposals, which are still evolving, drew immediate condemnation from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, echoing President Trump’s opposition to federal attempts to prod states to relax their voting rules.

The discord underscored that a long-running partisan battle over voting procedure restrictions looms as a major conflict this election year, even amid worries that the virus' continued threat could make in-person balloting hazardous.

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Democrats also want to send states additional money to help them expand their voting systems as officials around the country try figuring out how to adapt to the pandemic's threat. Although Pelosi did not specify a figure in a conference call with reporters Thursday, she'd suggested $2 billion in a phone call this week with House Democrats, according to a Democratic aide who described the conversation on condition of anonymity.

“Why should we be saying to people, ‘Stand in line for hours,' when we don’t even want you leaving the house?” she told reporters.

In a separate conference call, McCarthy said he saw no reason for election law changes now. Citing the widespread illness, death and unemployment stemming from the virus, he accused Pelosi of trying to leverage the pandemic to advance her party's agenda.

"You want to hold a bill up because you want to change election law in November, that somehow you think that gives you benefit? That’s disgusting,” he said.

Like Trump, McCarthy also suggested that voting by mail would be subject to fraud. Experts have said vote fraud of any type is extremely rare.

Trump has warned that Republicans would “never" be elected again if Democrats succeeded in broadening mail-in and absentee voting.

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Republicans should “not be afraid of the voice of the people, but they are," Pelosi said. "And that’s one of the reasons they want to stand in the way of a more open democratic system at a time of a pandemic.”

Republicans have also argued that the federal government should not interfere with state election laws.

The battle is expected to be waged mostly on a sweeping bill — probably weeks away — that would follow up on the $2.2 trillion package enacted last month funneling money to large and small businesses, most individuals, state and local governments and the health care system.

Democrats in Congress have been pushing for ballots to be mailed to every registered voter for the November election, but Republicans have expressed little desire to require states to make any changes to their election process.

Under the $2.2 trillion stimulus package, states were sent $400 million in federal funds for virus-related efforts. The amount was a fraction of what Democrats and some election experts have said is needed to accomplish a more ambitious overhaul of state voting systems before the November general election.

Some Senate Democrats had sought $2 billion for states as part of an emergency effort to expand early voting and make mail-in ballots available to every voter, which have also been longtime goals for Democrats.

Election officials across the country are dealing with unprecedented disruptions to voting caused by the coronavirus outbreak, as large parts of the country are being told to stay home and avoid crowds to slow the spread of the disease. At least 17 states have pushed back their presidential primaries to make additional preparations.

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State and local election officials have been struggling with what one official called a “tsunami” of poll worker cancellations and a lack of places willing to be used for voting.

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta.