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Inside the Democratic Party’s plan to prevent vote-by-mail disaster

The Democratic Party is kicking off the most complicated get-out-the-vote campaign in history — all without knocking on a door.

The party’s virtual convention marked the unofficial start of a massive public education, voter contact and legal strategy to make voting by mail a success in the fall, a huge priority for Joe Biden’s campaign. Record high numbers of people plan to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that group skews heavily Democratic, according to polling and absentee ballot request data.

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But voting by mail is also more complicated than voting in person, and the party’s campaign machinery has rapidly transformed itself into a system for helping voters navigate those obstacles. There’s the matter of getting an absentee ballot to begin with, which voters must apply to do in most states. Esoteric factors from signature requirements to delivery times and even rules about how the ballot envelopes are sealed all result in more mail votes getting tossed each election compared to in-person votes. And unusual delays in mail delivery this summer have heaped more stress on the situation.

That’s why Michelle Obama took time out from lacerating Trump in her Monday convention speech to implore supporters to vote early — but also to keep close track of their ballots if they vote by mail or, if they feel able, to vote in-person.

“We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can. We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow-up to make sure they’re received,” Obama said. “And then, make sure our friends and families do the same.”

The Democratic convention was one of the first major public steps in a campaign that over a dozen Democratic operatives described in interviews, which will run the party tens of millions of dollars and become the main focus of the coronavirus campaign.

“The best strategy to prevent Trump from casting unwarranted shade on the results of the election is to win in a landslide, so we’re doing all we can to help folks vote, vote early and drive down that ballot rejection rate,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

‘It takes more time’

Coronavirus has turned the Democratic Party’s voter contact program, one operative said, into something more like a tech support operation than a traditional door-knocking effort. Before the spring elections in Wisconsin earlier this year, for example, Wikler put together a troubleshooting team to guide voters through the mail-in ballot application process, including how to upload a required photo.

Voting by mail is an unfamiliar process to a lot of Americans. And while speeches and videos featuring the likes of Michelle Obama will help raise awareness about voting in November and get people to make plans, many will also need more contact and help from campaigns than if they were going to vote in person.

“When you’re teaching audiences to do something they’re not familiar with, like voting by mail, it takes more time and it takes more touches,” said Tatenda Musapatike, senior director of campaigns at ACRONYM, a digital-focused Democratic group that is running an eight-figure campaign to register and mobilize voters in eight battleground states. “More touches means more money.”

With door-knocking out on the Democratic side during the pandemic, it is also pushing more and more voter contact into the digital sphere. Sean Eldridge, the founder of the group Stand Up America, said peer-to-peer texting will take on an “unprecedented” role in this election, and his organization is trying to reach millions of voters that way with both volunteers and voters are stuck at home.

The Biden campaign and the DNC say their efforts are already well underway, and they have already reached out to millions of voters in battleground states to push Democrats to request their mail ballots now. Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC, is spending $ 24 million on voter mobilization, which includes vote-by-mail education. Fair Fight, a group founded by Stacey Abrams, has rolled out voter protection programs in 17 states.

“Vote by mail just moves the timeline up. States normally go into [get-out-the-vote mode] a few days before the election, but now in almost every state in the country, we are moving that timeline up incredibly quickly and it’s fast approaching,” said Jenn Ridder, Biden’s national states director.

While party leaders spent much of the spring and summer pushing mail voting as a safety measure amid coronavirus, Democratic operatives stress nearly unanimously that voting-by-mail shouldn’t be viewed as the only option for voters. Campaigns must make clear that voters can still vote in-person, they said, either on Election Day or in early voting.

“I do worry about some of the vote-by-mail push, in that we’re now taking voters with 15 years of voting X way and we’re encouraging them to vote Y,” said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who works with Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC. “We should help people vote in the way they’re most comfortable voting. We shouldn’t force them into vote-by-mail either.”

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the USPS and on mail-voting is raising concern among voters, operatives say.

“We’ve seen such an increase from young people in terms of concern about their ballot casting,” said Jared DeLoof, the states director of NextGen America, which targets younger voters. “They want to vote, they want to make sure that that vote is going to count.”

That means a bigger emphasis than usual on following up after putting a ballot in the mail. When a voter votes early, that usually marks the end of campaigns’ efforts to reach them. “I always say if you want to stop getting phone calls from the campaign, vote,” Ridder joked.

But this year, Democrats believe they will also have to follow up with some voters after their ballot has been cast, in an effort to help them fix ballots that have been rejected for technical reasons. State rules vary widely on if or how voters can correct their ballots, and the time windows to do so can be short.

Changing the rules

While Democratic campaigns and groups navigate the patchwork of state rules governing mail ballots to encourage turnout, Democratic election attorney Marc Elias is trying to change many of those rules.

This is the other half of the party’s vote-by-mail efforts: a sprawling legal effort that spans every battleground state and is costing tens of millions of dollars. Priorities USA, just one of Elias’ clients, has expanded its voting litigation budget to $ 32 million.

“One of the features of vote by mail is that between the point that the voter cast the ballot and the point that the ballot is counted, several things have to go right,” Elias said in an interview. “One is that the ballot has to be received by the election officials in time. … And the second is that the ballot needs to be verified and accepted.”

Elias, who was the lead attorney in former Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) 2008 recount victory and the general counsel for Hillary Clinton and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns, is pursuing what he calls “four pillars” of legal changes to election laws during coronavirus. The first, that mail ballots should include paid postage with them, has some cross-partisan support.

The other three do not, locking Elias in a wide-range legal fight with Republicans all over the country, including the Republican National Committee and its legal budget of at least $ 20 million. Those fights are over Elias’ push to mandate that states count ballots postmarked by Election Day but received after the fact; overhauling signature matching laws, which Elias derides as based on pseudoscience; and allowing for third parties to collect and turn in voters’ sealed absentee ballots, which Democrats call “community collection” and Republicans largely deride as “ballot harvesting.”

“One thing you do is you make sure that people whose ballot is being challenged based on signature matching, that the people that are doing that have been trained, are applying uniform non-discriminatory standards. And most importantly, the voter is notified and has an opportunity to cure,” Elias said of his legal strategy. (A cure process mandates that a state contacts voters whose ballots have been rejected to give them the ability to fix — or cure — their ballot.)

Several Democratic-backed lawsuits have also pushed to expand who can cast absentee ballots. In 44 states, any voter can, at a minimum, request an absentee ballot if they choose to do so, and some states have changed that requirement as a response to the pandemic.

The RNC has carved out a section on its website highlighting their legal strategy to attack Elias. Broadly, national Republicans believe that ballots should be received by close of polls on Election Day, they are pushing for an outright ban on third-party ballot collection and instead call for “preserved and enhanced” voting safeguards like signature matching and photo ID.

“Republicans absolutely want to make sure every valid vote is counted,” Mandi Merritt, a RNC spokesperson said. “But we believe Democrats are using the guise of a public health emergency to seek these long sought-after election changes that fit their agenda.”

The case log is long: Elias’ website tracks active cases he’s involved with in 17 different states, including virtually every battleground state, with clients stretching from federal and state Democratic Party committees to Priorities and labor unions. And other litigation from voting rights groups like Common Cause and the NAACP Legal Fund, separate from Elias’ work, has dealt with accepting ballots based on the postmark date to scratching witness requirements and voter ID laws in light of the pandemic across the map.

Meanwhile, Republicans have gotten involved in dozens of suits, intervening to try to block loosening (or scrapping) signature requirements and third-party ballot collections. In some states, the GOP is trying to roll back changes made in response to the pandemic, like blocking New Jersey’s universal mail-in system or challenging drop boxes in Pennsylvania.

“The RNC is fighting back to make sure that these laws on the book are defended, upheld and that election integrity” is protected, Merritt said.

Republicans argue that allowing for outside parties to collect and deliver ballots could lead to coercion or fraud. The results of a contested 2018 House race in North Carolina were tossed out last year, after a Republican operative allegedly collected ballots in the district, which is against state law, and in some cases allegedly marked the ballots.

Wisconsin’s spring election illustrated how important the deadline for receiving ballots can be. Ballots postmarked by the date of the April election were ultimately counted, after back-and-forth legal wrangling in the early weeks of the pandemic resulted in a shifting patchwork of rules. That resulted in an additional 79,000 votes becoming valid which wouldn’t have been under normal rules. Wisconsin is back to its regular rules for November, which require ballots to be received by Election Day, but Elias is challenging the law.

And in response to a suit from Elias, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar recently asked courts to rule that the battleground should be a postmarked-by state, citing concerns that the Postal Service will be unable to deliver ballots in time.

And however many lawsuits are in progress right now, they could be just the beginning.

Depending on how close the races for the White House and battleground Senate seats are, “we could be headed for a Bush v. Gore situation in every battleground state, depending how close the results are,” said one conservative legal expert, who was granted anonymity to speak freely.

“At the end of the day, if Donald Trump and the Republicans are committed to an assault on fair and free democratic elections, it is the job of the federal and state courts to step in, use their judicial independence, and protect the rights of citizens to vote,” Elias said, noting it is “too early to tell” the path of future litigation.


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