On Friday, the U.S. House followed the Senate and passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, sending it to Donald Trump, who signed it that afternoon. However, while this stimulus package is the biggest since World War II, it failed to ensure that Americans will still be able to vote safely in November. Instead, Congress is planning an indefensible month-long recess rather than pass further measures that would combat our ongoing public health and economic crises—and ensure that our democracy remains operational.
The new stimulus contains $400 million in funding for states to expand voting access, just one-tenth of the $4 billion that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had included in her proposal on Monday. Voting rights advocates have blasted the sum, which was watered down in negotiations with the Republican-held Senate, as far from sufficient.
Moreover, this compromise legislation doesn't include any mandate that states expand voting access. Pelosi's package, by contrast, would have required that states offer 15 days of in-person early voting; remove any excuse requirement to vote absentee by mail; mail every registered voter a ballot in case of an emergency like the current one; and allowed voters to register both online and on the same day they cast a ballot. Without these policies, countless Americans may be unable to vote without putting their health at risk.
Election experts have widely recommended that Congress use its authority to immediately require and fund the switch to extensive voting by mail (at least in federal elections) as a way to guarantee that elections still go forward and are conducted in a manner that minimizes potential exposure to the virus among voters and election workers. However, it will take time, effort, and organization to ensure that states can effectively implement such policies, and related measures will be necessary to ensure mail voting doesn’t disenfranchise anyone. This is why Congress must act as soon as possible.
Congressional Republicans, who've long been hostile to voting rights, strongly opposed provisions to make it easier to vote. Democrats can still try to reach a future compromise by agreeing to make these provisions temporary emergency measures rather than, as Pelosi envisioned, enshrining them into law permanently. By doing so, Democrats can demonstrate to the public that they are acting in good faith and not taking advantage of a crisis for alleged partisan gain.
Furthermore, because Republican-leaning states are least likely to make it easy to vote by mail as shown on the map at the top of this post (see here for a larger version), and because the GOP's elderly voter base is most at risk of serious illness, it's in Republicans’ own interest to ensure that voters have alternatives to in-person voting this year. Indeed, even Republicans in red states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Montana have called for a switch to mail voting.
Regardless, Democrats must make these voting provisions a red line that cannot be crossed when it comes to supporting any future stimulus package. With the economy in free fall and Trump's reelection chances dropping along with it, Republicans realize that it's in their immediate partisan interest to stabilize our economic situation. Because of that, Democrats hold tremendous leverage.
Democrats must therefore hold the line and demand that any further stimulus measures include these voting provisions to ensure our elections can go on. Donald Trump lacks the power to postpone the November elections, but they could become a catastrophe if millions of voters are unable to vote. As Congress fights to resolve our public health and economic crises, it must also act to avert a constitutional crisis.