In the wake of the World Health Organization (WHO) formally declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has introduced legislation that—depending on the spread of the new coronavirus in the United States—may require all states to allow Americans to vote using absentee ballots in the upcoming election.
The bill, known as the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act, would mandate that all U.S. election authorities offer voters the option of mailing in their ballots or dropping off hand-marked paper ballots, in lieu of standing in line on Election Day. The mandate would only be triggered, however, if 13 states—around 25 percent of the country—declare a public health emergency related to the new coronavirus.
The mandate would remain in effect for up to 180 days after the emergency declared by the states has ended.
“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said in a statement. “When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site. This is a nonpartisan, commonsense solution to the very real threat looming this November.”
According to Wyden’s office, 16 states currently have restrictions on who can request an absentee ballot, whereas 34 states will allow anyone to request one. Moreover, the bill would enable voters, no matter where they live, to request a ballot electronically and print it out at home, an option that’s only currently available to overseas and military voters.
The bill would also allow state authorities to independently trigger provisions of the law and mandate the acceptance of absentee ballots from anyone even if 25 percent of states have no declared an emergency.
In a statement alongside the bill’s introduction, Alexandra Chandler, a policy advocate at the nonpartisan outfit Protect Democracy, championed the bill as essential to maintaining the nation’s necessary democratic functions. “This legislation is an important step forward in safeguarding our elections and the democratic participation of all eligible voters, including those who may be most vulnerable during a crisis.”
“That’s not a partisan priority,” added Chandler, “it’s an American one.”
Wyden’s was not the only cornovavirus bill introduced on Wednesday. U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, Democrats of New Jersey, introduced legislation known as the Care for COVID-19 Act. The bill, they say, aims to aid Americans struggling with medical costs related to the testing and treatment of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Specifically, it requires health insurers to cover both diagnostic and treatment services related to the virus.
“During a public health emergency like the one we are experiencing right now, it’s even more imperative that people are able to obtain affordable health care,” Booker said in a statement. “This common-sense bill will ensure individuals can get the diagnostic and treatment services they need right now.”
The outbreak, which has seen more than 1,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and is currently giving rise to fears on Wall Street of a possible recession, has further reignited interest on Capitol Hill in pursuing paid sick leave on a national scale. Democrats introduced a bill on Wednesday designed to ensure 14 days of immediately accessible sick pay in cases of a public health emergency, but the bill was quickly spiked by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Preventing the bill from moving forward, Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said that while federally mandated sick leave is a “good idea,” employers alone should not bear the brunt of it. “It’s not a cure for the coronavirus to put a big new expensive federal mandate on employers who are struggling in the middle of this matter,” he said—hinting at the possibility he’d support a bill that placed the burden on the federal government instead.