RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus has already disrupted this year's elections, with many primaries delayed. But how states, political parties and the federal government respond now will shape voting come November. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: President Trump has made no secret that he doesn't like mail-in voting, even though he and the first lady cast their ballots that way in last month's Florida primary.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mail-in voting is a terrible thing. I think if you vote, you should go. And even the concept of early voting is not the greatest because a lot of things happen.
FESSLER: The president said last week such voting methods are ripe for fraud, although there's little evidence that's been the case. Still, many Republicans are suspicious about efforts to expand mail-in balloting. In response to concerns that in-person voting's too risky during a pandemic, they worry the change could give Democrats the edge.
MICHAEL MCDONALD: For better or worse, that's the perception. Now, is that perception based in reality? I don't think that it is.
FESSLER: Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, says there's little evidence that vote by mail favors one party over the other or even a particular demographic group. Still, it's one of many considerations being weighed as election officials and party operatives try to figure out what to do.
Last week's chaotic primary in Wisconsin was a dire warning of what might happen if they don't act. Voters in protective gear waited in line for hours to cast their ballots, and many, like poll worker, Josh Sperko, were worried and frustrated.
JOSH SPERKO: This is going to be really, really bad. There's going to be less people overall than would've turned out normally. People are - there's probably going to be deaths because of this.
FESSLER: McDonald calls Wisconsin's primary just one canary in the coal mine.
MCDONALD: We have a whole flock of canaries that could also be under severe duress when it comes to November.
FESSLER: Several states have already decided to expand mail-in voting for their upcoming primaries; others are considering doing so. There's even some bipartisan support. Despite the opposition of Trump and others in his party, Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist, says the real issue is how any new mail-in voting is conducted.
PATRICK RUFFINI: And the devil is truly in the details when it comes to designing a vote-by-mail regime where it doesn't already exist.
FESSLER: RUFFINI notes that a few states already have predominantly vote-by-mail elections, but most states offer it on a limited basis, and the rules can vary a lot. Some states require excuses, like being ill. Others require witness signatures or that voters pay the return postage. A few states allow people to collect and turn in ballots for a large number of voters, something Republicans vehemently oppose. Ruffini says it's such details that will make all the difference in who supports what.
RUFFINI: Anytime the voting system changes, even under nonemergency circumstances, you're going to see each party try to change things in a way that they feel like, you know, that they have the advantage.
FESSLER: And the legal sparring has already begun. Wisconsin Republicans successfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that absentee ballots could be postmarked after election day. Texas Democrats also filed suit last week claiming that their state's restrictive mail-in voting rules are unconstitutional. Tom Bonier, who runs a democratic data firm, thinks November's electorate will be a lot different than it would have been before the pandemic, but he's not sure how.
TOM BONIER: That's the big question, and that's what we're seeking to answer at this point. We just don't know. There are too many factors at play in terms of voter safety, changes in voting mechanisms, changes in the economy, changes in voter registration methods.
FESSLER: Congressional Democrats also want states to allow more early voting and same-day registration to help increase access at the polls. There's a general perception that higher turnout helps Democrats and hurts Republicans, although election experts say that's not necessarily true. Ned Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, hopes the main goal is to ensure that everybody who wants to vote in November is still able to do so.
NED FOLEY: The good news is we have time, enough time between now and November to do it. It will be a challenge, but if we are committed to genuine participation for everybody, we ought to be able to meet that challenge.
FESSLER: But he worries about a different scenario - that partisan politics takes over.
FOLEY: And the reason why I'm particularly worried about that is because, you know, any time you get disenfranchisement, that fundamentally undermines the fairness of the system.
FESSLER: And ultimately, public trust in the election results. Foley says what happened in Wisconsin, where voters' health was put at risk because of disagreement over the rules, was not encouraging.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.