Originally published in The Intercept on April 20, 2020.
ON TUESDAY NIGHT, jurisdictions in two pivotal swing states are set to approve new vote-by-mail measures to help ensure citizens can safely cast ballots amid the global coronavirus pandemic. The initiatives — which come in spite of the Republican-held state legislatures in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that have refused to cancel in-person voting — can serve as a road map for other progressive cities and counties looking to take quick action as the November election nears.
Ensuring people don’t have to choose between their health and voting has become a top priority for leaders seeking to reduce the spread of Covid-19. From a political standpoint, Democrats also see the expansion of vote-by-mail as necessary to beat Donald Trump, where they believe higher voter turnout will redound to their benefit. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, along with Michigan, are key to that strategy, as those are the states that delivered the 2016 election to Trump. The president, too, seems to understand the potency of vote-by-mail, as he has recently been spreading lies about it, despite himself having voted absentee this past March and in the 2018 midterms.
“It is critical and time-sensitive that localities and states implement vote-by-mail in advance of upcoming elections and they must get adequate federal funds to do so,” said Sarah Johnson, director of Local Progress, a national network of progressive municipal elected officials.
In Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, nearly 19,000 people voted in-person in the state’s infamous April 7 primary, with some having to wait hours in line to do so, a situation that was all but guaranteed to contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Now, a winner of that election is leading the charge for safe voting in the city during primary elections in August, as well as the November general election.
Marina Dimitrijevic, a former county supervisor and the former state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, was elected as an alderman on Milwaukee’s Common Council. On Tuesday night, at the first meeting of the council’s new term, Dimitrijevic will be introducing legislation to mail absentee ballot applications to the city’s roughly 300,000 registered voters, along with a prepaid postage envelope to mail the applications back in. The legislation, which is already supported by 13 of Milwaukee’s 15 aldermen, also has the endorsement of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Tony Evers, whose efforts to postpone the April primary were blocked by the Republican legislature and the courts.
Dimitrijevic’s idea is modeled off a successful program deployed by two small and wealthier Milwaukee suburbs, Whitefish Bay and Bayside, which mailed absentee voter applications to all their registered voters ahead of the April 7 primary. According to state data, roughly 60 percent of Whitefish Bay voters cast absentee ballots for that election, more than any other city in the state.
While Milwaukee voters will have to pay for postage for their actual ballots, Dimitrijevic plans to push for an expansion of secure lockboxes around the city where voters could drop off ballots if they didn’t have stamps, a number of which were already in place for the April 7 election. (The bill gives city leaders 30 days to hash out details for the program.)
According to Dimitrijevic, the safe-voting measure will cost Milwaukee between $100,000 and $150,000 — primarily the cost of postage — which the aldermen and mayor hope federal stimulus money could help cover.
“This will protect the lives of the 300,000 registered voters in Milwaukee and undercuts the Republican assault on Wisconsin’s democracy,” Dimitrijevic, who started working on the bill within 24 hours of her April 13 victory, told The Intercept.
Priscilla Bort, a Wisconsin Working Families Party organizer, said she expects to see other localities follow suit throughout the state, pointing to Madison as one city that already is planning similar legislation. “We see this as a critical pathway to win in November,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, council members in Allegheny County, the second most populous county in the state, are also set to vote Tuesday night to send absentee ballot applications and prepaid postage to all registered voters.
The applications would be to vote in Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary on June 2. The legislation would require all mail-in ballot applications to be sent to registered voters by May 8, and would have a deadline to return them by May 26. Voters who return the applications would receive ballots in the mail along with prepaid postage.
The ordinance, drafted by Allegheny County Councilperson Bethany Hallam, has the support of Allegheny’s influential County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The council is composed of 12 Democrats and three Republicans, and the Democratic majority almost always passes measures that have Fitzgerald’s backing.
Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state legislature recently rejected a provision, proposed by a Democratic state representative from Philadelphia, to mail all registered voters absentee ballot applications. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by a 5-4 margin, and Trump won the state narrowly by 0.72 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has been mailing Pennsylvania Republican voters absentee ballot applications, and despite Trump’s denouncements, has been calling vote-by-mail “easy, convenient, and secure.”
While Hallam’s ordinance would only apply to the primary on June 2, she told The Intercept her hope is that it will eventually be extended to the general election, and that it would become a permanent fixture for Allegheny County.
“I think it’s on us as elected officials to make it as easy as possible and I think this is something we need to do every single election,” she said.
There are roughly 894,000 registered voters in Allegheny County, and Hallam said about 360,000 voted in the 2016 primary. In terms of ballpark cost, she said they’re estimating bulk mail rates of 30-33 cents a person. With prepaid postage, she noted, the government only pays the cost if the application or ballot is actually sent back in.
THERE ARE SIGNS similar measures will expand across the United States. In Broward County, the second-most populous county in Florida, officials have also recently committed to sending vote-by-mail request forms with prepaid postage to registered voters who haven’t already asked for them. Like Wisconsin, Florida held its presidential primary in-person on March 17, over the objections of public health officials who urged state officials to postpone it; two poll workers in Broward County later tested positive for coronavirus. The Broward County absentee request forms would be for Florida’s August primary, which includes school board and judicial races, and the November presidential election. According to the Sun Sentinel, other Florida counties like Palm Beach and Miami-Dade are considering similar measures.
Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, said his group is talking to leaders all over the country about expanding vote-by-mail initiatives. “From a national standpoint we’re attempting to ensure that Congress put aside at least $4 billion in a new stimulus package for a robust vote-from-home program,” he said. “But where we’re able to pull those levers like in Milwaukee, we will.”
The political pressure is so high that even in New Hampshire — a state that has both downplayed the risks of coronavirus and long fought efforts to make voting easier — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu recently announced that voters would be able to do mail-in voting for November’s election.
Last year Sununu vetoed a bill that would have allowed no-excuse absentee voting in New Hampshire, something permitted in two-thirds of all states. New Hampshire election officials have agreed to allow concerns about Covid-19 to qualify as a “disability” under the state’s authorized excuses this year. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire by a margin of just 0.4 percentage points.