Conservatives on Monday challenged states’ rush to adopt mail-in voting, with a report documenting millions of ballots lost in the post each election.
But the forces pushing for mail-in options got a major supporter in former first lady Michelle Obama, who said she will be championing early voting, including by mail, in the era of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Voting has emerged as one of the most contentious battlegrounds during the pandemic. Democrats and some state-level Republicans say the country needs to come up with options for Americans to participate in elections this year without putting themselves at risk of contracting the disease.
“Americans should never have to choose between making their voices heard and keeping themselves and their families safe,” Mrs. Obama said in a statement. “Expanding access to vote-by-mail, online voter registration and early voting are critical steps for this moment — and they’re long overdue.”
For many Republicans, expanding the use of mail-in ballots conjures up scenarios of voter fraud.
In the 2018 elections, 42.4 million ballots were mailed to voters in states that allow, or in some cases require, mail-in voting. Of those, more than a quarter failed, according to the Public Interest Legal Foundation.
Using Election Assistance Commission numbers, the foundation said 1.1 million of those ballots were deemed undeliverable to the addresses where they were sent. More than 430,000 others were rejected by elections officials, and more than 10 million — about a quarter of those sent — were “unaccounted for,” according to the data.
Each of those ballots is an opportunity for mischief, said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation and a former Justice Department official.
“Putting the election in the hands of the United States Postal Service would be a catastrophe,” he said.
His organization is battling states that are moving toward mail voting, including New Mexico. It said in a court brief last week that ballots would be sent automatically to thousands of dead or otherwise bogus registrants if the state succeeds in its emergency move toward mail voting.
Complicating the issue is that Democrats had been pushing for vote-by-mail options before the coronavirus crisis.
House Democrats’ top bill after they took control of Congress last year included promoting mail-in voting.
President Trump has said he believes mail-in voting would doom Republicans, but a number of state officials in both parties see it as the best option if operations don’t return to normal for the November elections.
Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah already conduct all elections by mail.
Other states allow absentee or early voting by mail to varying degrees. They include Arizona, Florida and the three Rust Belt states that Mr. Trump flipped to win the 2016 election.
The push for mail-in voting grew more acute after the Wisconsin primary last week.
The governor tried to postpone the contest and tried to expand the ability of people to send back absentee ballots after the day of the primary. He said so many people demanded ballots in the last days that not all could be mailed out in time.
Courts at the state and federal level curtailed those plans, sending tens of thousands of people to the polls amid social distancing directives.
Iconic photos showed angry voters in lengthy queues spaced out at least 6 feet from one another.
“What happened last week is a blight on democracy, is a blight on the history of our state,” Ben Winkler, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, said Monday. He said voters ended up “braving death” to vote.
He said he is waiting on numbers in the next weeks that show how many people test positive for COVID-10, and indeed die, because they voted in person.
No particular surge in coronavirus infections has been found a week out from the election, but the incubation period is 14 days and the virus could spread further from contact.
The Honest Elections Project, a conservative group, announced a $250,000 advertising campaign Monday saying it was Democrats who created the Wisconsin chaos.
“Democrats didn’t think they could win, so they tried lawsuits, changing the rules, even canceling the election,” a narrator says in the ad. “They created chaos. It’s wrong. The responsible solution: Clear election laws, vulnerable people protected with expanded absentee voting, fraud prevented. … The bottom line: It should be easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
Jason Snead, the group’s executive director, said states should expand absentee voting to enable vulnerable voters to participate rather than move to all-mail balloting.
Wisconsin was one of three Rust Belt states Mr. Trump flipped in the 2016 election, delivering him the White House. Democratic leaders said the Republican-controlled Legislature is refusing to embrace vote-by-mail in order to protect Mr. Trump in November.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, pointed to Republican governors in Georgia, Iowa, New Hampshire and Ohio who are moving to expand mail voting, and said Wisconsin should also.
“This doesn’t lead to voter fraud. Donald Trump voted by mail,” he said.
Indeed, Mr. Trump did cast an absentee ballot in Florida’s primary by mail last month, though he told reporters we was “allowed to” because he was unable to be in the state on primary day.