With over 1,000 members of the Cornell community watching, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), presented the details of newly proposed voting reforms for the 2020 election. The former presidential candidate, and rumored top pick for vice president, fielded questions from professors and students about managing an election season during the crisis.
The town hall, screened on Zoom, was hosted by the Cornell Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Typically, Cornell’s largest lecture hall, Bailey Hall, could fit just over 1,300 students. The online platform provided an opportunity for one of the largest Cornell audiences for a political speaker in recent history.
The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 was the main focus of the seminar. The bill would require states to create plans for the upcoming elections, including a mandate for absentee ballot submissions by mail and an extended deadline for mail-in voting.
Klobuchar, ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees federal election administration, introduced the bill to the Senate floor in mid-March, in co-sponsorship with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
“The idea is that, during a pandemic, we have to put in some new federal rules,” Klobuchar said, in between sips from a “Votes for Women” coffee mug — a gift from colleague Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
She quipped that New York’s other senator, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had also been giving her a gift — a gift of calling her late at night and early in the morning almost every day.
The senator elaborated that her bill would provide funding to all 50 states to help them expand mail-in ballot initiatives, train polling workers and potentially open polling places up to 20 days in advance of Election Day so individuals are able to vote while staying socially distant.
While all states currently have mail-in ballots, many have obstacles to obtaining one. For example, in North Carolina and Virginia, a voter needs two witnesses or a notary present when completing their ballot. A requirement that, Klobuchar noted, was cumbersome, if not impossible, given the limited capabilities of thousands of contagious, bedridden patients.
President Donald Trump is a vocal opponent of the measures to increase mail-in ballots, saying, among other reasons, that mail-in voting could cause rampant voter fraud — a claim that has been debunked.
Yet, governors from across the aisle and the country do support similar measures. Klobuchar hinted at the president’s hypocrisy, quipping that Trump himself requested an absentee mail-in ballot from Palm Beach, Florida to vote “from the comfort of his home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
“It is hard to say this is some partisan thing, especially when millions of members of our military vote-by-mail,” the senator said.
At least $2 billion is needed to fund the election across the nation, according to Klobuchar’s estimates. A $2 trillion emergency spending bill that was signed into law on March 27 contained $400 million in funding for mail-in ballots and other election-related measures, she said.
“I am very optimistic that we will be able to get more funding, maybe not in this immediate short-term package, but in the next legislative package,” Klobuchar said. “We just need to get it as soon as possible.”
Klobuchar pointed to the April 7 election in Wisconsin as an example, where voters lined up six feet apart in homemade masks and risked their health to vote.
Just one day before the election, the Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified an order from Gov. Tony Evers (D-Wis.) to postpone the election until June 9, setting up a precarious situation as voters visited polling locations while public health officials pleaded that Wisconsinites stay home.
Sixteen states have postponed their primary elections amidst the pandemic. Of those 16 states, at least three have moved their primaries entirely to mail-in ballots.
The senator recently had a too-close-for-comfort brush with COVID-19 herself; her “really healthy” husband recently recovered from the virus.
“The hardest thing is you cannot be next to the bedside of the person, can’t hold their hand, see them, meet the doctors and nurses that took care of them, or give them a hug,” Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar expressed her frustration with the United States’ response to the pandemic, pointing to how the Trump administration had “no plans, especially to get the tests out there,” after witnessing the virus overtake China.
In the Q&A session, one student asked about protections for the United States Postal Service, given that the federal government has failed to bail them out. Klobuchar acknowledged that keeping the USPS afloat is essential to ensuring the success of mail-in ballot measures.
“We just cannot lose the prize, which is our own democracy,” Klobuchar emphasized.