AP Photo/John Froschauer Election 2020 Washington
AP Photo/John Froschauer

The cost of postage alone for vote-by-mail is estimated at $423 million, and an additional $170 million if Congress opted for prepaid postage.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a coronavirus relief bill that includes a $400 million allocation to states to help protect elections in November from any potential disruptions caused by the pandemic. The funds will be distributed by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), and each state is required to tell the EAC how the money will be used to strengthen voting protections. 

But the bill, which will now move to the House for a vote, has activists worried it isn’t nearly enough. 

Matt Liebman, executive director at Voter Protection Project (VPP), told COURIER he doesn’t believe $400 million would even cover the fees necessary to make vote-by-mail possible—a necessary alternative to in-person voting as policymakers anticipate social distancing measures may remain in place this autumn

States are already expecting an increase in absentee voting. While 75% of primary voters in California used vote-by-mail this year, the state expects 90% of voters will opt for it in the general election. 

“This is a drop in the bucket for what is actually needed to guarantee safe voting conditions for all Americans,” Liebman told COURIER. “$400 million does not even cover the proposed estimates of postage costs for mailing out absentee ballots, let alone the additional ballot tracking, staffing, and security measures that need to be adopted to administer fair, accessible, and safe elections.”

Last week, the Brennan Center of Justice released a study that outlined the cost estimate of overhauling the current voting system by the general election as the country navigates the novel coronavirus outbreak. The total ranged from $982 million to $1.4 billion. 

According to their report, the cost of postage alone is estimated at $423 million, and an additional $170 million if Congress opted for prepaid postage.

Before the coronavirus emergency aid package was approved, Democrats had initially requested $4 billion to federally expand vote by mail and boost election protection measures. 

The financial allotment, however, wasn’t the only way the bill fell short for Democrats. Republicans also opposed a measure that called for states to institute 20 days of early voting, require all votes submitted 21 days before the election be counted, and implement no-excuse absentee voting across the country, as proposed in the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore). 

“In times of crisis, the American people cannot be forced to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” Klobuchar and Wyden said in a joint statement. “While this funding is a step in the right direction, we must enact election reforms across the country as well as secure more resources to guarantee safe and secure elections.”

Activists say that without new election protections installed during the pandemic, the 17 states without vote by mail and those that only allow absentee ballots with a reason provided (such as New York, Missouri, and Alabama) will experience widespread voter suppression. 

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In the 2016 presidential election, 72% of voters 65 and older turned out to cast their ballots—the same demographic that is most vulnerable to COVID-19. Recent data shows people under 65 with no underlying conditions are also susceptible to the virus’ worst effects. As a result, it is likely many people will want to avoid in-person voting this November as a matter of public health. 

“By not implementing a guaranteed vote-by-mail option, expanded early voting centers, and online voter registration for all Americans,” Liebman said, “Mitch McConnell and national Republicans will accomplish their goal of suppressing voter turnout and further take advantage of marginalized communities across our country.” 

The Brennan Center’s total estimated cost to ensure all voters can cast their ballots without fear of getting sick or being left unheard weighed fees associated with ballot printing, postage, ballot tracking software, and processing equipment, along with funds for additional facilities, staffing, and ballot drop boxes. The study also put a $271.4 million price tag on maintaining in-person voting, which included polling facilities that meet public health standards, professional interpreters, provisional materials, procedures to reduce long lines, and expanded early voting. 

“There are millions of Americans who will not be able to cast a private and independent vote by mail: people without Internet and mail access, those who need language assistance to vote, and people with disabilities who rely on voting machines to cast their ballots among them,” the study stated. “There is evidence that the absence of in-person voting options could disproportionately and negatively impact Black, Latino, and young voters. We must maintain the safety-valve of in person voting, but in a way that reduces density and ensures health.”

While Senate Democrats say they will continue to push for more voter protections in the next phase of pandemic relief bills, activist groups like VPP plan on combating suppressive policies by opposing incumbents they feel aren’t doing enough to protect elections, Liebman said.

“Voter Protection Project has already invested over $1 million to take back the U.S. Senate, flip state legislative chambers across the country, and keep Mitch McConnell accountable,” he said. “VPP plans to spend millions more in 2020 to take electoral action against Republicans who engage in voter suppression tactics.”