[Image via CSG OVI]
The Council on State Governments’ Overseas Voting Initiative (CSG OVI) has a new set of recommendations for states about “fail-safe” options for overseas voters facing postal disruptions due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Here’s the release:
The ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic has caused mail disruptions around the world that will undoubtedly impact the many American citizens living and working abroad when it comes time to vote in the November election. As of late June, the United States Postal Service (USPS) lists 103 international mail disruptions — a number that changes regularly.
Voters in 20 states that only allow military and overseas voters to return their voted ballots to their local election officials by mail will struggle to find a way to cast a ballot in the 2020 elections. [emphasis added]
“While the number of voters who may fall into this narrow category could be relatively small, each and every individual vote matters and could change the outcome of an election,” said Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, co-chair of The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative. “As election officials, we need to do our level best to ensure that every eligible citizen who wants to cast a ballot is able to do so and to ensure that ballot is counted.”
The Council of State Governments (CSG) Overseas Voting Initiative Working Group, comprised of 27 state and local election officials from across the nation, convened to specifically address the global mail disruptions and the impact on overseas voters. This group of elections officials, recognizing that they are uniquely positioned to advocate for the voters at issue, compiled a list of available options for states to examine as a fail-safe for overseas voters in order to help prevent potential disenfranchisement…
“This nonpartisan group felt an urgent need to provide guidance to their peers,” said Taylor Lansdale, project manager for the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative. “CSG was honored by their request to provide a forum for these imperative discussions. The recommendations the group produced are eye-opening and will prove valuable for all states.”
For the 20 states that only allow ballot return via mail, there are limited options to ensure that overseas voters have access to federal election ballots. Further complicating this problem, policymakers have a very limited window of time to make changes to help these voters.
“There are limited options and limited time,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, co-chair of the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative. “Policymakers are running up against election preparation deadlines to make any substantive changes that will help voters in this situation. The right to vote is sacred and enshrined in our Constitution. Therefore, we need election officials, governors and legislators to be aware of this potential issue and help us mitigate it so that voters can exercise their right to vote in our democratic process.”
The recommendations are focused on individuals who are facing severe limitations on their ability to return a ballot:
[C]onsider the hypothetical case of Mary, an American citizen living abroad. She is registered to vote in a state that only allows voted ballots to be returned by mail. Mail service is suspended to and from the country where she is living, so she cannot return her ballot by mail to her local election office in the U.S. Mary is informed that her only other option is to take her ballot to the U.S. Embassy for transport through diplomatic mail. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic many cities such as Rome, Italy and Santiago, Chile, have placed significant travel restrictions on its residents, only allowing them to leave the house for trips to the grocery store or pharmacy. Mary lives in a city with such restrictions and is not permitted to travel across the city to the embassy to access diplomatic mail. Therefore, Mary has no way to return her ballot in order for it to be counted.
OVI encourages states to think about what they can do for voters like “Mary”, including:
- proxy voting;
- allowing for electronic return of ballots; and
- expanding the amount of time for processing ballots from overseas.
The brief also notes that states can opt to do nothing, but observes that
If mail delivery through organizations that include the USPS, FedEx and the United Parcel Service (UPS) does not resume to the affected countries, Mary and many other overseas American citizens will be unable to vote.
These recommendations are incredibly important and extremely timely; while the issue of electronic return of ballots is controversial because of well-documented security risks, in the absence of other accommodations it could literally be the only way an overseas voter facing COVID-related postal disruptions can cast a ballot. Kudos to CSG OVI for this bipartisan look at the problem – and here’s hoping election officials and policymakers in those 20 states are thinking about what they can do for their overseas voters in 2020.