The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 would expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states and would reimburse states for additional costs in administering elections during the coronavirus pandemic

Confusion regarding Ohio’s primary underscores need for federal action 

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee with oversight jurisdiction over federal elections, and Senator Wyden (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced legislation that would ensure Americans are still able to vote by expanding early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states, and allowing voters who did not receive an absentee ballot, to use a printable ballot currently only provided for military and overseas voters. The legislation comes as confusion surrounded whether Ohio’s primary would take place today, and following announcements by Louisiana and Georgia officials that they are postponing their April presidential primaries.

In addition to Klobuchar and Wyden, Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tina Smith (D-MN), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Doug Jones (D-AL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Gary Peters (D-MI), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Mark Warner (D-VA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tom Udall (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Tom Carper (D-DE) are cosponsors.

“Americans are facing unprecedented disruptions to their daily lives and we need to make sure that in the midst of this pandemic, Americans don’t also lose their ability to vote,” Klobuchar said. “The confusion regarding Ohio’s primary only underscores the need for federal legislation. Some states have announced that they will postpone their primary elections, and many election officials have expressed concern regarding how this public health emergency will affect upcoming elections. We must take critical steps to ensure that states have the resources they need to implement early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail programs. As Congress prepares to provide states with medical and economic relief, we should also act swiftly to pass my legislation to ensure that every American has a safe way to participate in our democracy during a national emergency.”

“Vote by mail is increasingly looking like the only way for states to conduct elections. If Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Kentucky had vote by mail on the books years ago, they wouldn't have had to postpone their elections,” Wyden said. “This bill will give our country the highest chance of avoiding delayed elections and ensure Americans can exercise their Constitutional rights. No one should have to put their health at risk to vote.”

Natural disasters and public health emergencies are occurring more frequently and with greater impact than ever before, affecting the ability of victims and first responders to vote on Election Day. The lack of voting options in many states and sufficient emergency ballot procedures can leave voters disenfranchised. COVID-19, hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the wildfires in the Western United States are recent examples of the damage and disruption that public health emergencies and natural disasters can cause. We have already seen limited incidences of poll workers not showing up on Election Day this year, due to fears of the coronavirus. The recent tornadoes in Tennessee on Super Tuesday also greatly impacted voting in the state. With fears of catching the coronavirus, the priority must be to reduce the number of people voting in person at any given time, by allowing for early voting, and for all people to be able to vote from their homes using vote-by-mail. As a last resort, voters who did not receive their absentee ballots will also need access to a printable mail in ballot that has so far only been made available to military and overseas voters.

Emergencies in the proximity of an election day can have a lasting impact as polling places deal with flooding, lack of power, or other unsafe conditions. The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA) represents a commonsense solution to ensuring the 2020 elections, and future elections, are resilient to emergencies and that we are protecting the voting rights of those in harm’s way as well as emergency responders.

The bill would specifically:

  • Ensure that voters in all states have 20 days of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail and ensure states begin processing votes cast during early voting or by mail 14 days before Election Day to avoid delays in counting votes on Election Day.
  • Guarantee that all voter registration applications submitted by mail or online before and 21 days prior to election day are deemed valid. Allow any state to have a deadline which is closer to Election Day.
  • Require states and jurisdictions to establish a publicly available contingency plan to enable eligible Americans to vote in the case of an emergency and establish an initiative to improve the safety of voters and poll workers and recruit poll workers from high schools and colleges as well as from other State and local government offices. 
  • Provide all voters with the option of online requests for absentee ballots and require states to accept requests received before or 5 days prior to election day. Allow any state to have a deadline which is closer to Election Day.
  • Guarantee the counting of absentee ballots postmarked or signed before the close of the polls on Election Day and received on or before the 10 days following Election Day.
  • Ensure states provide self-sealing envelopes with prepaid postage for all voters who request a voter registration application, absentee ballot application, or an absentee ballot.
  • Require states to offer their downloadable and printable absentee ballots under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) to domestic voters who requested but did not receive an absentee ballot for the 2020 election and to voters with disabilities who requested an absentee ballot and reside in a state that does not offer secure accessible remote ballot marking.
  • Charge the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) with creating a uniform domestic downloadable and printable absentee ballot that can be used starting in 2022.
  • Direct all states that do not already use ballot tracking systems to use envelopes with an Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) to allow voters to track their ballot for the 2020 general election and successive elections until a state implements a domestic ballot update service.
  • Charge the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in consultation with the General Services Administration (GSA), EAC, and the United States Postal Service to create a domestic ballot update service for election officials to provide voters with updates on their ballot for the 2024 election and beyond.
  • Ensure states implement a specified signature curing procedure to allow voters the opportunity to address a signature mismatch.
  • Provide additional accommodations for Native American voters including allowing tribes to designate ballot pickup and drop-off locations and not requiring residential address for election mail.
  • Authorize funds necessary to reimburse states for the cost of implementing the Act, such as providing additional absentee ballots and prepaid postage, and purchasing additional ballot scanners and absentee ballot drop boxes.
  • Authorize funds necessary to reimburse states for the cost of developing or purchasing and implementing secure remote ballot marking to enable voters with disabilities to mark their ballots at home and vote by mail.
  • Provide $3 million in additional funds to the EAC for supporting states in implementing the Act.

The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA) is supported by Common Cause, Let America Vote, End Citizens United Action Fund, Democracy 21, NALEO Education Fund, Public Citizen, Free Speech for the People, Fair Fight Action, National Education Association, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, and California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla.

Throughout her time in the Senate, Klobuchar has been fighting to protect voting rights for all Americans. In January, Klobuchar and Casey introduced the Accessible Voting Act of 2020, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors, people with disabilities, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and those with limited English proficiency.

Wyden has long pushed to expand vote-by-mail nationwide to improve accessibility for seniors, working families, college students and others who might have difficulty voting in person. He has introduced universal vote by mail legislation every Congress since 2006. Wyden was the first senator elected in an all-mail election in 1996.

Last year, Klobuchar and Brown introduced the SAVE VOTERs Act to amend the National Voter Registration Act to clarify that a state may not use someone’s failure to vote as reason to remove them as a registered voter. Also last year, she introduced the Register America to Vote Act, legislation to ensure that every state implements a secure process to automatically register eligible citizens to vote on their eighteenth birthday. The bill also directs states to allow voters who have been automatically registered, or who were previously registered to vote, to update their address through the day of the election and authorizes a $325 million grant program for states to implement their automatic voter registration programs and to improve their election security. Klobuchar has also partnered with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to ensure that servicemembers know that their votes are being counted. Klobuchar’s provision in last year’s NDAA with Cornyn would authorize funds for the Department of Defense and United States Postal Service to conduct a study to determine what is necessary to scale a ballot tracking program to all members of the Armed Forces and overseas voters.

Klobuchar also leads the Students Voicing Opinions in Today’s Elections (VOTE) Act which would create a pilot program to educate high school seniors about registering to vote and help get them registered and the Same Day Registration Act to require states to allow people to register to vote on the same day as the election. In March 2018, Klobuchar and Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and John Kennedy (R-LA) introduced the Support our Military Spouses Act. This legislation would reduce confusion and ensure military spouses do not have to establish new legal residency after every military reassignment.

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