States including Georgia, West Virginia and Ohio are rushing to dramatically ramp up mail-in voting for primary contests during the coronavirus pandemic — even with no guarantee Congress will help foot the bill.
Those states are all planning to spend millions of dollars to send absentee ballot applications to all their registered voters in anticipation of largely mail-in primaries that will be unlike any their states have ever conducted.
The efforts come as congressional leaders continue to wrangle over whether the federal government should help states increase mail-in voting amid the pandemic and if Democrats can use the crisis to mandate reforms to improve ballot access and security. Senate leaders announced an agreement early today on a $2 trillion stimulus bill to respond to the pandemic but have yet to release details on whether the bill contains new election funding.
Senators are likely to vote on the measure later today but House action could take longer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (told NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell yesterday the deal then under discussion fell far short of the $4 billion Democrats requested for election officials, but her office didn’t answer queries about what actually made it into the deal.
The state efforts mark a huge logistical and financial undertaking by officials struggling to protect democratic processes under conditions that make in-person voting extremely difficult if not dangerous.
In a twist, they’re also being led by Republican secretaries of state who fiercely oppose the mandates championed by Pelosi and other Democrats, which include expanding the option of mail-in voting to all citizens and requiring 15 to 20 days of early voting for all elections.
“Those are ideas that deserve debate but to push them through as emergency measures is playing politics with a crisis and that’s not what we should be doing,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) told me. “I think it’s crisis opportunism for people to try to get their otherwise partisan pet projects at a time like this.”
LaRose plans to ask the Ohio legislature today for at least $10.5 million to run a majority mail-in primary in June to make up for the state’s March 17 primary that Gov. Mike DeWine (R) canceled at the last minute out of concern the virus made in-person voting unsafe for voters and poll workers.
The plan is to send forms to request an absentee ballot to every registered Ohio voter along with a postage-paid envelope. LaRose hopes to raise the approximately 35 percent of Ohioans who typically vote by mail to as near 100 percent as possible, he told me, though he’ll also run a smaller in-person election in early June.
LaRose said he’d welcome federal money to offset the cost of the the mail-in effort provided it doesn’t come with any strings attached. Election leaders in Georgia and West Virginia, meanwhile, were less eager for help from Washington.
“We’re grateful for what we do have… The federal government has a lot of issues on their plate so we’ll make due with what we have now,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who announced plans yesterday to surge mail-in voting for the state’s May 19 primary, told me.
Georgia officials said they expect to spend around $13 million to send absentee voter forms to the state’s 6.9 million registered voters – and anticipate dramatically raising the approximately 5 percent of voters who cast ballots by mail in previous elections.
“We’d like to see a real strong increase in that,” Raffensperger said, though he didn’t offer a precise goal. “Doing this quick is a big lift, but our team is up the challenge.”
West Virginia is among about one-third of states that require voters to have an excuse such as illness or travel before they can vote by mail, and only about 2 percent of voters did so in previous elections. Because of a state emergency declaration, however, Secretary of State Mac Warner (R) was able to effectively declare fear of coronavirus as the excuse for the entire state.
Warner expects to spend at least $1.6 million to send absentee ballot requests to his residents before the May 12 primary to supplement voters who actually show up at the polls.
Raffensperger and Warner both plan to fund the vote-by-mail efforts at least partly with leftover money Congress appropriated to them last year to help harden their election system against hackers from Russia or elsewhere. But it’s unclear whether they’ll have enough leftover money for a similar effort in the general election if the pandemic continues to upset normal life.
For now, though, they said they’re focused only on the primaries.
“At this point, it’s one step at a time,” Warner told me. “We may need to duplicate this depending on how the virus plays out, but that’s out of our control right now.”
PINGED, PATCHED, PWNED
PINGED: Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are urging European leaders to sanction a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who they say not only helped interfere with the 2016 U.S. election but is already interfering in the 2020 contest, Maggie Miller at the Hill reports. Putin associate Yevgeniy Prigozhin is the main funder of the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russian Internet troll factory.
“We must thwart his malign global activities done at Putin’s behest and ongoing efforts to interfere in the domestic politics of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic,” the House members, led by chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and ranking Republican Michael McCaul (Tex.) wrote in a letter to the European Union’s ambassador to the United States.
The letter follows a similar request from Senate leaders pushing for sanctions against Prigozhin.
PATCHED: The Health and Human Services Department, which is helping to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, is also being exploited by hackers, Sean Lyngaas at CyberScoop reports. The scammers used a phony web link that looked like it came from the agency to dupe people into downloading malware that can steal their personal data.
The phishing email appeared to link to an actual HHS website providing information about coronavirus symptoms. It’s unclear how many people were hacked before cybersecurity experts spotted the scam and worked with HHS to take it down, Sean reports.
PWNED: Banks in the United States and the United Kingdom are stepping up efforts to protect customers from coronavirus-themed fraud, Lawrence White and Sinead Cruise at Reuters report. The efforts include social media campaigns to warn of potential scams and 24-hour support hotlines for victims.
Fraudsters in the United States have used the confusion created by shortened banking hours and an emphasis on online banking to steal people’s personal data including birth dates and Social Security numbers, Reuters reports. In some cases, scammers have posed as officials with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation claiming to need people’s data because their lender is collapsing, FDIC officials said.
The Election Assistance Commission is seeking public input on the long-awaited 2.0 version of the voluntary security and accessibility guidelines for voting systems that it shares with states. The big change is a ban sought by cybersecurity hawks on Internet connectivity in voting systems. Here’s more from Politico’s Morning Cybersecurity.
— More cybersecurity news from the public sector:
— Cybersecurity news from the private sector:
- The U.S. Election Assistance Commission will host a virtual public hearing on VVSG 2.0 Requirements at 10am on Friday.