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Calls for vote-by-mail rise with stay-at-home orders

Election officials and voting rights groups are calling for a general move to an all vote-by-mail system for remaining primaries and the November general election as the spread of the novel coronavirus continues to shut down major cities and states across the US.

Ellen Weintraub, one of three current members of the Federal Election Commission and its former chairwoman, said this week that voting by mail is a “necessary and urgent” step in the face of the pandemic.

“As Congress and the White House race to save American lives and preserve America’s economy, they must also act swiftly to protect America’s democracy,” Weintraub said in a statement Thursday. “No one should have to risk their life — or the lives of their loved ones — to cast their vote.”

Visit CNN’s Election Center for full coverage of the 2020 race

She joined a chorus of election officials and voting rights advocates across the country that have been pushing for a radical change to how American exercise their most fundamental right in the face of an unprecedented health crisis.

Voters in Illinois who participated in that state’s presidential primary this past week were met with health precautions like the use of social distancing, hand sanitizer and wipes that led to long lines and delayed start times at polling locations.

Currently five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — conduct elections entirely by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while another 28 states and the District of Columbia offer “no-excuse” voting by mail.

Some officials have moved to make emergency changes going forward. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs on Wednesday sent a letter to state lawmakers asking them to authorize all-mail elections for August, when the state holds a local primary, and for the November general election.

Hobbs’ letter came days after a county election official in Arizona, Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, tried to implement all-mail voting for Democratic primary voters at the last minute in the presidential primary but was stopped short by a last-minute lawsuit filed by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

Texas Democrats filed a lawsuit on Friday, demanding a declaratory judgment that grants all eligible voters who believe their health is in danger under the threat of Covid-19 the ability to cast their ballots by mail if they choose, according to a news release. The case was filed in Travis County, which is home to the state’s capital of Austin, against Secretary of State Ruth Hughes and Travis County Clerk Dana Debeauvoir.

Berks County, in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, on Thursday passed a legally nonbinding resolution pressuring Gov. Tom Wolf and the state legislature to allow the “election to occur entirely through absentee and mail-in ballots in order to prevent the need to vote in person.”

“I just want to do the job right. We just want to have the right supplies and what we need to have a successful election and for each day that goes by we are running out of time,” Deborah Olivieri, election director for Berks County, told CNN.

Pennsylvania is still scheduled to hold its presidential primaries on April 28, along with Delaware, New York and Rhode Island. Two other states that were supposed to hold their primaries the same day, Connecticut and Maryland, have decided to postpone until June.

Voting rights groups have also have started focusing their efforts on getting states to quickly change to a vote-by-mail system. RepresentUs, a democracy reform group, this week launched a campaign to push more states to a no-excuse absentee vote by mail option.

“We know that the virus isn’t going to go away soon. Right now we are trying to mitigate the surge that will overrun the medical industry, the hospitals, but we know that this virus is going to be around for many months,” said Josh Silver, Director and co-founder of RepresentUs told CNN.

“So we need a system in place so that everyone in this country can vote from home in 2020,” Silver said.

The expansion of stay-at-home orders may add to the pressure on election officials to make the change.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday night ordered the state’s 40 million residents to stay home. At the time of the order, at least nineteen people had died and more than 900 tested positive for coronavirus in California. The order will remain in place until further notice.

Los Angeles county, the largest voting district in the nation, is weighing the feasibility of sending vote by mail ballots all registered voters, according to Mike Sanchez, a spokesman for the county registrar.

“Our department as a whole, of course, will put the safety and health of the community as our No. 1 priority,” Sanchez told CNN. “If our department is asked by either the state or the legislature is asked to produce vote by mail ballots to everyone to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the county, then we are absolutely going to abide by that.”

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