As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to plague the country, Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker co-sponsored a bill to ensure voters will still be able to cast their ballots in the 2020 election despite the public health emergency.
While it’s unclear how long the pandemic will last and to what extend it will disrupt voting in the general election, the legislation would expand early voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail in all states.
The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act requires states to set up voting contingency plans for public health emergencies and natural disasters occuring in the future.
“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy. In New Jersey and every other state, Americans should be able to cast their ballots safely—period,” Booker said in a press statement March 20 announcing the measure. “Even during a public health emergency like the one we’re facing now, or a natural disaster that disrupts our way of life, states should remove barriers that can keep people from casting their votes.”
The bill takes into account the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s guidelines to practice social distancing and limit gatherings of 10 of more people. Reducing crowd size at polling locations, Menendez said, “will ultimately protect the health of voters and poll workers.”
“We can’t let COVID-19, or any future health emergency or natural disaster, impede on our most fundamental democratic right,” Menendez said.
The bill would specifically:
- Give voters 20 days of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail 14 days before the general election to avoid delays in tallying votes on Election Day.
- Guarantee that all voter registration applications submitted by mail or online before or 21 days prior to the election are deemed valid.
- Require states to develop a contingency plan for elections in the event of an emergency.
- Require states to offer downloadable and printable absentee ballots to voters who requested but did not receive one.
- Provide additional accommodations for Native American voters, such as allowing tribes to designate ballot pick-up and drop-off locations and not requiring residential address for election mail.
- Ensure states provide self-sealing envelopes with pre-paid postage for all voters who request a voter registration application, absentee ballot application or absentee ballot.
- Authorize funds to reimburse states for the cost of items such as absentee ballots, prepaid postage, ballot scanners and absentee ballot drop boxes.
It includes measures requiring all states use ballot tracking systems featuring barcodes to allow voters to track their ballot for the 2020 election, as well as implementing a specified signature procedure to allow voters the opportunity to address a signature mismatch.
Changes to the upcoming May 12 election in New Jersey have already been made. On March 19, Gov. Phil Murphy announced all scheduled elections would be conducted using vote-by-mail ballots only.
The governor said the primary for June 2 is still set to be held, but reserved the right to change the date if circumstances dictate.
New Jersey is in the midst of a statewide lockdown, as officials attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus. Within the past week, Murphy has closed schools, shut down non-essential retail businesses, cancelled public gatherings and instructed residents to stay home.