WASHINGTON — Forrest Lehman, an elections director in central Pennsylvania, watched Wisconsin’s primary unfold in the news last week with a sense of horror.
The snaking lines of masked voters risking their health to cast ballots in the middle of a pandemic and the sharp drop in polling sites in Milwaukee and other urban areas were a real-life premonition of what could happen if Pennsylvania holds its own primary, rescheduled to June 2, with in-person voting.
“That’s where we could end up,” said Lehman. The thought of asking poll workers to show up that day is weighing heavily on his conscience. He believes it would be much better to simply conduct the entire election by mail.
Elections experts say expanding mail-in voting will be key to stopping widespread voter disenfranchisement in the remaining primaries — and, crucially, the November general election — as the coronavirus turns the simple act of voting at the local polling place into a potential public health nightmare.
But as the pandemic has spread in recent weeks, many Republicans from President Trump on down have remained staunchly opposed to some efforts to expand the practice, turning the once-mundane issue of mail-in balloting into the latest front in the party’s years-long effort to toughen voting rules.
The fight in Wisconsin, where Republicans in the state and a conservative majority on the US Supreme Court stopped Democratic attempts to postpone the election and loosen limits on absentee voting in it, could be the opening salvo in a new phase of the nation’s long-running battle over voting rights that has been turbocharged by the coronavirus outbreak.
“If states around the country do not alter the current election procedures, they will be the next Wisconsin,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at the public interest watchdog group Common Cause. “This has now turned into a political fight.”
It is playing out at every level of government. In the $2 trillion rescue bill last month, Congress appropriated only a small fraction of Democrats’ requests for $4 billion to protect and adapt the nation’s voting system in response to the outbreak. Republicans have also ignored their calls to require states to send every registered voter an absentee ballot.
In Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Minnesota, Republican state lawmakers have expressed opposition to efforts to expand mail-in voting because of the coronavirus. Trump, who requested a vote by mail ballot himself last month for Florida’s primary, has been vocal about his opposition to it, laying out a simple, if jarring reason: More people voting would be bad for his party.
“If you ever agreed to it,” he told Fox News in late March, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Since then, Trump has ratcheted up the partisan dimensions of the dispute, using Twitter to urge Republicans to “fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail in voting,” and claiming it yields “tremendous potential for voter fraud, and, for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
There is scant evidence that voting by mail actually hurts Republicans or increases fraud. University of Wisconsin Madison professor Barry Burden, who has researched mail-in voting extensively, said that using it nationwide in 2020 may actually “help Republicans somewhat.” This is especially true if it means more seniors — a loyal base for Trump — can vote without risking a trip to the polls. But Democrats say Republicans are looking to keep voter turnout low in hopes that will help them in November.
“What we saw in Wisconsin and I fear we will see elsewhere is a deliberate effort by Republicans to not solve these problems and in fact exacerbate them so that fewer and fewer people are able to cast their votes,” said Marc Elias, a lawyer who represents the Democratic National Committee and other clients in lawsuits related to voting access in 14 states.
“They’re not just saying the quiet part out loud,” he added, “they’re shouting the quiet part out loud.”
Democrats and voting rights advocates say the opposition by Trump and some of his allies to expanded voting by mail fits into a years-long focus by Republicans on overturning or weakening the nation’s landmark electoral rights protections. And in the majority of states, the GOP has successfully imposed stricter rules on voter identification, registration, and early voting that have made it harder in particular for people of color, the poor, and young people — many of whom tend to support Democrats — to vote.
“Voting rules and procedures have been the subject of partisan battles for the last decade as the result of this push by some segment of the Republican Party to reduce access to voting overall,” said Wendy Weiser, of the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and advocacy group. “Now, the fights over the fair way of providing fair access to mail ballots and processing, those are going to be more politically important in 2020.”
State officials run elections, even for federal offices, and five states mail every voter a ballot: Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado, and Utah. Two thirds of states don’t require voters to provide an explanation to get an absentee ballot. But efforts to make those ballots universal — or at least easier to get or submit — are swiftly becoming a sticking point.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation last month allowing communities to do mail-only or expanded absentee voting for all state and local elections through June, but there are no proposed changes to the September primary or the November election. People will have the option of requesting an absentee ballot and voting early, but there is no widespread mail-in option for those elections.
Trump has long had a fixation with voter fraud — an issue that experts say is exceedingly rare in the United States — and he and his allies say they oppose expanded mail-in voting on those grounds.
The Republican National Committee announced plans this year to spend more than $10 million fighting Democratic lawsuits over voting and preparing for Election Day operations. It has also gotten directly involved in coronavirus-related issues, fighting Democrats over easing restrictions on absentee balloting for the Wisconsin primary. The RNC is also battling an effort to make New Mexico’s June 2 primary largely vote-by-mail.
But some Republicans see a solution in voting by mail. On Friday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, ratified the state’s plan to conduct its June 2 primary by mail. New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, said recently that people could cast absentee ballots if coronavirus is still a problem in November while the Republican secretary of state in Georgia is mailing absentee ballot applications to all active voters for its primary, rescheduled to June 9.
Deirdre Holden, elections supervisor in Paulding County, Ga., said she had gone through about a half-dozen boxes of paper to print absentee ballot requests over just a few days.
“We are overwhelmed and we are stressed, but we are going to get it done,” she said. If the state’s primary were held earlier with less voting by mail, Holden worried people still would be in line waiting to cast ballots in person at midnight.
But the advocacy group Black Voters Matter is pushing Georgia to go further, filing suit to require the state include return postage on mail ballots.
“Having voters have to go out in a pandemic and purchase postage is akin to a poll tax in my mind,” said Nikema Williams, a state senator and chair of the state’s Democratic Party.
Elections experts caution that, no matter the political fight, voters are likely to use the existing options for mail-in voting at higher rates than ever this year, and state and local officials are likely to need more money to process them than has been made available by the federal government.
Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said her state’s emergency move to a “predominantly” mail-only June primary will help prepare for a mail-in general election, should it come to that. This is exactly what Theresa Payton, former White House chief information officer under George W. Bush and author of a new book on election security, thinks more states should be doing.
For her, the warning sign wasn’t the political breakdown in Wisconsin, but the logistical nightmare that occurred at February’s Iowa caucuses, when problems with new technology delayed the results.
“They didn’t test it out first, and you can get some perspective on what can happen,” Payton said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that California was among five states that mail every voter a ballot. The fifth state is Washington.