Virus Outbreak Nebraska Primary

Pam Fleming and fellow workers stuff ballots and instructions into mail-in envelopes April 14 at the Lancaster County Election Committee offices in Lincoln, Neb. While Democrats and Republicans nationwide debate whether to rely on mail-in voting in upcoming elections, Wyoming officials may have found middle ground in an absentee voting solution.

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It’s still unclear what the country will look like when voters go to the polls this November. But both parties are already fighting to shape how the upcoming primary and general elections will be held.

Voting by mail, which has quickly been embraced by America’s voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has driven a wedge between Republicans and Democrats across the nation. Most polls show a clear majority of Americans support expanding it ahead of the 2020 general elections and, already this year, plans to expand mail-in balloting have been rolled out in a number of states, with more expected to follow.

For Democrats, vote by mail has been seen as a means to allow the homebound masses an opportunity to meaningfully engage in their democracy without risking their own well-being.

For Republicans, the expansion of vote by mail is a harbinger to voter fraud on a massive scale, described with little evidence to support it as a Democratic-led effort to harvest ballots and tip the scales in the favor of liberal candidates. Already, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and the GOP have publicly opposed any expansion of vote by mail, calling it an attempt to “eliminate safeguards in our elections.”

Though a mix of expanding mail-in balloting and access to existing absentee balloting programs has been embraced by both Democrats and Republican administrations across the country, the talking points have already provoked figures like President Donald Trump, who railed on Twitter against efforts in Democratic-controlled Michigan (which sent out applications to voters to receive mail-in ballots) and Republican-controlled Nevada (which is moving to a vote-by-mail primary this year) to broaden ballot access.

The divide has even reared its head in Wyoming, where Democrats and Republicans are laying plans to both expand and defeat any expansion of mail-in balloting in the Equality State.

In a presentation to members of the Wyoming Republican Party earlier this month, Marti Halverson — a former state legislator and the party’s outgoing national committeewoman — detailed a ground-level effort in Wyoming that, in consultation with the RNC, would roll out programming intended to stall the expansion of mail-in balloting, something she described as a means to “protect the integrity of the vote.”

Meanwhile, the state’s Democratic Party — which earlier this year successfully conducted its presidential caucus completely by mail — passed an independent audit of its elections with no issues and since has worked to bring additional visibility to mail-in balloting across Wyoming.

The divide between the two parties is a surprising one, said the Equality State Policy Center’s Chris Merrill, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic that impacts voters of all stripes.

“As a nonpartisan individual, I find it astonishing that this issue is somehow making its way into partisan politics,” he said. “Helping people who want to vote to vote, especially in the midst of a pandemic — a time when you’re trying to protect public health and you’re trying to protect your county election officials, your county employees — you want to give them an option to vote without putting themselves and others at risk.”

While in-person options continue to be considered as bipartisan best practices, the expansion of absentee balloting or some other form of mail-in option could be a necessity, particularly at a time when the logistical challenges of hosting an in-person election during a pandemic could potentially restrict poll access. At the Wyoming Republican Convention earlier this spring, GOP officials described a number of challenges in recruiting workers who would be willing to staff polling places on Election Day, citing fear among the job’s usual hiring pool of older, retired workers of contracting the coronavirus.

Leaders in Wyoming have already been working diligently to provide an alternative option to voters this fall. However, Wyoming’s Republican Secretary of State, Ed Buchanan, is careful to distinguish between voting by mail and what Wyoming is currently doing: simply allowing more people to apply for an absentee ballot through the mail.

“We’re just hoping to give folks an option,” Buchanan said. “They’ve always had the option, but we’re just kind of trying to go the extra mile for somebody who may not know that, just to say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a way that you can request an absentee ballot and you can still vote if you’re afraid to go in person to the ballot box.’”

It’s an approach that could potentially strike a balance between the desires of liberals and conservatives heading into Election Day, says John Pudner, president of the conservative campaign finance reform organization Take Back Our Republic and a former adviser on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

Building on Wyoming’s already stringent voter verification laws and an absentee balloting process in counties across the state (Fremont County’s — a copy of which was emailed to the Star-Tribune — is quite extensive), Pudner said a temporary absentee solution could help to maintain the access to the ballots that Democrats desire while ensuring the election security often yearned for by Republicans.

“Mailing out applications versus mailing out ballots is the key,” he said. “As long as you have that extra step, where someone says, ‘I want to have a ballot’ in order to vote, then we’re for it.”

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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