Advocates say a massive expansion of vote-by-mail is technically feasible, but may require more time, money and political willpower than is available, with the $400 million included in Congress' new stimulus bill just the beginning of the need.
"In my view, with the right leadership and with the right amount of funding by the federal government, most states would be able to go to a vote-by-mail system for November — if we begin planning now,” said Jocelyn Benson, the secretary of state in Michigan, where vote-by-mail has exploded in popularity since voters there approved a referendum in 2018 to allow anyone to request a mail-in absentee ballot.
"In this extraordinary, unprecedented moment, there is an opportunity," Benson added.
An American presidential election has never been postponed or canceled, but a majority of poll workers are over the age of 60, a group at heightened risk for COVID-19, and health officials have discouraged crowds like the kind that are generally unavoidable at polling places.
"It's either going to be vote-by-mail or nothing if we have to deal with a worst-case scenario," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is sponsoring an emergency bill to expand vote-by-mail, told reporters on a conference call.
Others say vote-by-mail would have to be part of a suite of responses, such as extended early in-person voting with crowd controls and "curbside voting," which allows voters concerned about entering a polling place to return a ballot without leaving their car.
Epidemiologists say there’s no way of knowing how long the pandemic will last and warn that even if the virus retreats over the summer, it could return in a second wave in the fall as temperatures dip again, following the pattern of the Spanish Flu of 1918, potentially jeopardizing the most important expression of American democracy.
A growing list of states have responded by delaying upcoming primary elections and curbing or eliminating in-person voting, which could serve as a test run for November.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates it would cost $2 billion to prepare the country for a national election, centered around a massive expansion of vote-by-mail, during the coronavirus. Advocates are disappointed by the $400 million in grants to states included in the stimulus package and say more will be needed.
But some Republicans are already chafing at what they see as attempts to nationalize vote-by-mail, calling it a dangerous incursion onto states' rights since states, not the federal government, are responsible for their own elections under the Constitution.
There are those on the left who are warning that "Trump could try to cancel the election if we don't institute Vote By Mail," as Larry Cohen, a co-chair of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and head of the allied group Our Revolution, said in a fundraising email.
There's no central decision point to get to national vote-by-mail, since the Constitution puts each state in charge of its own elections.
"There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but instead a 50-state solution," the head of the National Association of Secretaries of State wrote in an open-letter Tuesday. "In particular, states may increase their vote by mail presence, extend absentee mail ballot request deadlines, increase drive-up curbside voting, and/or expand absentee voting eligibility."
Instead, the 42 states that do not currently vote primarily by mail would have to work in parallel to adjust laws, start planning, hire vendors, set up central processing facilities and educate voters about the new system, while hoping the federal government helps foot the huge bill.
"Considering the time necessary to order and set up required equipment and other infrastructure, we believe a decision needs to be made by April 15 or sooner to make this happen in various states ahead of the November election," the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates for voting-by-mail, wrote in new blueprint for states to massively scale up vote-by-mail by the general election.
Nearly 7-in-10 ballots cast west of Colorado are now cast by mail, according to the Vote at Home Institute, with five Western states voting entirely by mail and three more heading that way. But only 27 percent of ballots nationwide are cast via mail, leaving plenty of ground to make up.
The simplest solution might be for states to use current laws to dramatically expand mail voting by, for instance, mailing every voter an absentee ballot request form and a postage-paid return envelope.
That's what Republican Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state of Georgia, where just 5 percent of voters cast their ballot by mail in the last two elections, plans to do ahead of his state's postponed May 19 primary, sending absentee ballot requests forms to an estimated 6.9 million people.
Nevada, another battleground state, and Rhode Island have already moved to conduct their rescheduled June primaries almost entirely by mail, while Ohio's governor and secretary of state, both Republicans, want to implement a postage-paid vote-by-mail election ahead of their state's rescheduled June 2 primary. Maryland and New Jersey plan to hold down-ballot elections scheduled throughout the next three months entirely by mail, and that could help pave the way for November.
West Virginia has added fear of the coronavirus as a valid excuse to vote absentee, while Indiana temporarily suspended the state's absentee voting requirements, allowing anyone to cast a ballot by mail in their primary.
Every state that isn't used to voting primarily by mail will have to prepare for a huge increase in volume, said Kim Wyman, the secretary of state in Washington and a Republican.
Washington has been conducting elections entirely by mail for several years, including its recent Democratic presidential primary election on March 10 while the state was rocked by the pandemic.
Wyman said she's been inundated with calls from colleagues in other states seeking advice.
"It started about two weeks ago, when states started realizing that the sheer volume of people it's going to take to stand up an election is going to be very difficult amidst this outbreak," she said.
"The first thing I say is people need to understand the context," she said. "I am probably the biggest champion of vote by mail in the country, but it took us five years to move from polling places to vote-by-mail."
Voters need to be told not only how to vote, but to expect that election nights— including the big one in November — could feel completely unlike anything they're used to.
Mailed ballots typically take much longer to count because, among other reasons, of the security measures needed to verify them without the voter present (it took almost a week for NBC News and other outlets to declare a winner in Washington, for instance).
"You’re going to need days, maybe weeks to process elections after a high-turnout election to process results," Wyman said. Counties in Washington have 20 days to finalize results and "they use every one of those days in our state," she added.
While voters and poll workers might be safe from the coronavirus if they can cast a ballot by mail, centralized ballot processing facilities could grind the count to a halt if one worker tests positive. And the system would depend on the U.S. Postal Service, which is under its own strains.
Critics on the right raise concerns about ballot security and voter fraud, warning it's more difficult to verify identity without voters showing up in person (most vote-by-mail systems depend on signature matching for security). And critics say mailed ballots create opportunities for bad actors to tamper with or destroy ballots before they're returned, or for people to coerce others to vote a certain way.
Civil rights advocates, too, while intrigued by the power of sending every voter a ballot, warn that moving the process beyond the watchful eye of poll workers can create opportunities for discrimination and coercion, for instance by domineering spouses or employers.
"I am deeply concerned about unchecked mass vote-by-mail in November if we're not mindful of the kinds of discrimination that we’ve seen in the past," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
For instance, the group took Gwinnett County, Georgia, to court during the 2018 election when it discovered that absentee ballots were being rejected at much higher rates for black voters than white voters, Clarke said.
Voting at home can also be a challenge for non-English speakers or people who need help properly navigating the ballot, as well as for Native Americans living on reservations who don't have addresses.
And for some voters, such older African-Americans who remember a time before the Civil Rights movement, it can be difficult to trust that a ballot dropped in a mailbox will really be counted.
"I think it’s important that we work to get vote by mail right," Clarke said. "We will have to invest a lot of effort in educating voters to make them trust the system."
No matter what, the 2020 election will likely be a watershed moment in voting-by-mail. The practice was already on the rise and fears of the coronavirus are now pushing even more voters to take advantage of current laws, let alone expanded ones, which could overwhelm officials if they don't prepare.
In Wisconsin, for instance, which has resisted rescheduling its April 7 primary, election clerks report a shortage of envelopes due to a spike in demand for absentee ballots. As of Friday, some 380,000 Wisconsinites had requested absentee ballots — way up from the nearly 250,000 who asked for one during the 2016 presidential election.
"We're telling people that you’re going to see a surge in mail-ballots no matter what, so you need to prepare for it," said Audrey Kline, the policy director of the National Vote at Home Institute. "We're just trying to help states prepare for what we see as the coming tidal wave."