U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand cosponsored legislation to protect Americans’ access to the ballot box during the coronavirus pandemic. Following election chaos as primary voters went to the polls in Wisconsin and Georgia amidst a COVID-19 outbreak, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 includes $3.6 billion in funding to safeguard elections. The legislation, originally introduced by U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), would expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states, and allow voters who did not receive an absentee ballot to use a printable ballot currently only provided for military and overseas voters.
“The 2020 election is looming closer, yet our country lacks adequate testing, tracing, and vaccine infrastructure to guarantee safe in person voting during this pandemic,” said Senator Gillibrand. “We’ve already watched voters and poll workers put their health and safety at risk to exercise their right to vote — to continue down that path in the midst of a pandemic would be a disaster for our democracy. It’s crucial that Congress put emergency provisions in place to protect all Americans’ constitutional right to vote. I’m proud to cosponsor this legislation to take much-needed steps to strengthen the integrity of our elections and ensure that voting is equal, fair, accessible and safe for all Americans in November and beyond.”
The lack of voting options in many states and sufficient emergency ballot procedures can leave voters disenfranchised as natural disasters and public health emergencies occur with greater impact than ever before. While COVID-19 continues to spread, Congress must prioritize guaranteed vote by mail and reducing the number of people voting in person by allowing early voting. 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. The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA) provides commonsense solutions to ensure elections during this crisis and beyond 2020 are resilient to emergencies and that voting rights are protected. Specifically, the legislation would:
- 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.
Senator Gillibrand has continuously stressed the importance of strengthening election infrastructure and protecting voting rights during the COVID-19 crisis. She previously called on Congress to provide emergency funding and provisions in future coronavirus relief legislation in order to protect Americans’ constitutional right to vote. As the unprecedented national crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic raised concerns over election security and the need for immediate action to reinforce voting rights in November 2020, Gillibrand called for critical provisions from the Voter Empowerment Act of 2019 (S. 549) and new emergency voting mechanisms to expand access to early voting, absentee ballots, and vote by mail. She led the introduction of the bicameral Voter Empowerment Act which would help protect the voting rights of people across the country by ensuring equal access to the ballot for every eligible voter, modernizing voter registration, and helping to eliminate deceptive practices that deter people from voting.
A summary of the legislation can be found here.