As calls mount to expand vote-by-mail options for state primaries and the November election, advocacy groups have a warning: Don't reduce or eliminate in-person voting in the process.
In a joint publication released Monday, the NAACP and the liberal Center for American Progress say curbing or entirely cutting in-person options because of the coronavirus pandemic would "inadvertently disenfranchise" African American, disabled, American Indian and other voters who rely on same-day voter registration.
"To prevent the disenfranchisement of American citizens, any expansion of vote by mail must include preservation of in-person voting options for people who need them," the groups said in the report.
Their message comes as several states are working to expand vote-by-mail in case citizens are still advised to avoid public places in November because of the coronavirus. Democrats, including presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and former first lady Michelle Obama, have made vote-by-mail a rallying cry while President Donald Trump opposes changes.
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Both groups support ensuring all Americans can vote by-mail if they choose – but they've flagged recent decisions of state officials to couple efforts with reducing in-person voting.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, ordered all voting in the state's July 7 primary be conducted by mail. Republican Idaho Gov. Brad Little moved the state to entirely absentee voting for its May 19 primary. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgam, a Republican, suspended the requirement that each country have at least one polling site open on Election Day and "strongly encouraged" all-mail voting.
Ohio's April 28 primary, rescheduled from March 17, will be almost entirely by mail, with in-person voting limited to people with disabilities and residents without permanent addresses. Democratic primaries in Alaska, which occurred April 11, Kansas and Wyoming are each mail-only.
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The push for vote-by-mail gained even more steam last week when Wisconsin primary voters were forced to weigh safety with exercising their democratic rights. Many stood in line for hours wearing face masks to brave their way to the polls, particularly in the state's largest city, Milwaukee, where only five voting sites were open.
But the report from the NAACP and CAP says black Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged by vote-by-mail because they are more likely to have changed their address and traditionally rely on in-person voting. In the 2018 midterm elections, 23.5% of white voters voted by mail, compared to 11% of black voters.
One in six voting-age individuals with disabilities in the U.S. requires in-person accommodations to vote, according to the organizations. This often includes people who are blind and others who have physical, intellectual or developmental disabilities and need assistance to vote privately.
People who live on tribal land often have limited access to postal service, the groups also said. Meanwhile, in-person voting is needed for same day-voter registration. In the 2016 general election, 1.3 million Americans used some form of same-day voter registration to cast their votes.
"Expanding vote-by-mail opportunities in upcoming elections will help promote voter participation during the COVID-19 pandemic while mitigating public health risks," the NAACP and CAP say in the report. "However, while vote by mail is a convenient option for many Americans, it does not work for everyone.
"This is why in-person voting options, including early voting, must be preserved in any vote-by-mail system."
The report makes several recommendations: Preserve in-person voting by ensuring at least two weeks of early voting and designating polling sites on tribal lands; expand online- and same-day voter registration; establish programs so voters can track their mailed ballots through the process; ensure signature-verification requirements are nondiscriminatory; ramp up voter education efforts on new policies; and eliminate requirements for vote-by-mail.
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Thirty-four states have "no-excuse" absentee voting laws under which citizens either automatically receive ballots at home or can get them upon request.
Voting by mail is most prevalent in the West. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – hold all-mail elections in which all registered voters are mailed ballots. However, in-person voting is still an option in each. More than two-thirds of voting in three other states – Arizona, California and Montana – is conducted by mail.
In 16 states, voters can receive mail ballots but only if they meet certain exceptions such as being 65 years or older, having a disability, or being out of the county on Election Day and during the early voting period.
Voting security advocates have sounded the alarm for these states especially to start making changes quickly, but several are led by Republican governors or secretaries of states who don't support widespread changes. Trump has made halting vote-by-mail a priority, arguing it would hurt Republicans int he polls and that it's corrupt.
Among the critics: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said he opposes mandating mail-in voting because it would infringe on the rights of people who vote at the polls.
“I do not want to take away the law that provides the right of people to vote in person,” Abbott said last month, drawing accusations from Democrats that he wants to suppress turnout.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.