As concerns have risen about voter safety in the midst of a global pandemic, the past few weeks have seen proposed solutions put forward by voter-rights organizations, Democratic lawmakers, and almost the entirety of former Vice President Joe Biden’s short list of potential running mates.
But Biden himself has held back on endorsing any particular plan for expanding access to mail-in ballots—a decision that campaign sources told The Daily Beast is by design.
“Joe Biden throwing his support behind any specific legislation to expand vote-by-mail is as good as drawing a target on it in red ink,” said one person familiar with the campaign’s thinking.
Under guidance from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan is sending absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the state ahead of its May 5 primary. Last week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California introduced the “VoteSafe Act,” which would require states to permit no-excuse mail-in voting by absentee. In March, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced the “Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020,” which would do the same, and reimburse states for additional costs of administering elections during the pandemic.
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who created the group Fair Fight to campaign for increased voting access after her narrow loss in 2018, has fought ever since for expanding the use of vote-by-mail in Georgia.
“The reality is, if we go ahead and get mail-in ballots to as many voters as possible, you shorten the lines, which means you can move as many people out of needing to be in-person,” Abrams told MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday, calling the Wisconsin election and its aftermath “a travesty and a tragedy.”
Even former first lady Michelle Obama, who has largely eschewed politics since her husband left office, has returned to the political stage to advocate for increased mail-in ballot access.
“Americans should never have to choose between making their voices heard and keeping themselves and their families safe,” Obama said in a statement released last week by the voter-access nonprofit When We All Vote.
The Wisconsin contest caused concerns from some Democrats that people voting in person could get sick and possibly die from the virus. But Republican leaders in the state resisted efforts to delay the election.
At least 19 cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin linked to potential exposure during the state’s primary election two weeks ago, according to ABC News, which is why, Abrams continued, “we are all working so hard to ensure that we can not only flatten the curve but ensure our democracy.”
Biden himself, however, has taken a slower approach to pushing a specific plan for conducting a national election in the midst of a pandemic, instead making unspecific calls for “voter security” after the Wisconsin election had wrapped.
“We have to make sure that we secure for all Americans the right to vote, including options for safe, accessible in-person voting and expanded vote-by-mail and early voting,” campaign spokesperson Bill Russo told The Daily Beast earlier this month, after Biden came out against in-person voting in the Wisconsin primary. “It is imperative that we protect our democracy and every American’s right to vote and we know that is going to be complicated while we are also simultaneously taking the critical steps we need to take to protect our health and get this virus under control.”
Two sources familiar with the Biden campaign’s approach on the matter told The Daily Beast that the former vice president is wary of leading the charge on the issue, lest the notion of voter safety in a pandemic become an issue of Democrats vs. Republicans—potentially dooming efforts to pass such measures in Mitch McConnell’s Senate when so-called “Phase Four” relief legislation comes to a vote.
“Trump was willing to risk literal impeachment to block Joe’s chances at winning in the general,” said one source familiar with the campaign’s calculus. “You think he wouldn’t be willing to veto COVID relief?”
Voting rights have already proven to be a potentially explosive political issue in the Trump era, even before the coronavirus pandemic made the safe casting of ballots a matter of life or potential death. After winning the 2016 general election, Trump has persistently (and baselessly) declared that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote victory.
Unwilling to let the issue go, a voter fraud commission shepherded by the Trump administration in 2017 quickly turned into a fiasco with little to show for in the way of results. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic the president, once again returned to a voter fraud conspiracy as he disparaged voting by mail as causing widespread voter fraud.
The day of the Wisconsin election, Trump told reporters at a coronavirus briefing that mail-in ballots are “a very dangerous thing for this country ’cause they’re cheaters.”
“The mail ballots are corrupt in my opinion,” said Trump, who himself had asked for a mail-in ballot for the Florida primary, according to The Palm Beach Post. “I think mail in voting is horrible. It’s corrupt.”
While experts say fraud can occur with mail-in voting, Trump’s claim of such large-scale election corruption is baseless, and he has offered no evidence to back the major fraud charges.It also runs counter to Republican officials who have emphasized absentee voting during the pandemic.
The pandemic has led to voting becoming an even more fraught topic, with Wisconsin’s April contest serving as the starkest example. But even a trio of March 17 contests were plagued with issues tied to the coronavirus. A fourth contest was supposed to be held that same day in Ohio until the state’s Republican governor made a drastic maneuver at the last minute to keep in-person voting from happening on the originally scheduled day, citing public health concerns.
One elections expert told The Daily Beast that voting rights will likely be a major issue in the presidential campaign.
“[It’s] something that especially Biden’s vice presidential candidate would be likely to be hammering on as a way of attacking the Republicans,” said Richard Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California, Irvine. “Biden may be trying to stay above the fray in that sense.”
Hasen expects Biden’s "voting rights people” will pick up on the issue more as the sense grows “that steps are going to need to be taken in the fall to assure that people can vote safely.”
And the risk of politicization has not stopped figures like Abrams and Klobuchar from advocating for a national solution to the question.
“These are both people who have track records in dealing with voting issues for some time and so they may be the logical people to be doing this,” said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School specializing in election law.
Before the coronavirus pandemic further highlighted the issue, access to voting could be a difficult frontline issue on which to build a campaign—especially for presidential candidates. Worries about the economy and health care can often prove to be more at the top-of-mind for voters, though it’s unclear how the voting issues that have emerged during the pandemic could change that thought process for some.
“To be honest, in terms of what resonates with the public, it’s very rarely the No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 issue for anybody,” Briffault said.