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Primary Election Snafus Show Challenges For November Vote

The day after eight states and the District of Columbia held primaries — amid both a pandemic and civil unrest — proponents of mail-in voting said there were lessons to be learned for November, when millions more voters are expected to use absentee ballots.

They noted that voters had to wait for hours Tuesdayto cast ballots at limited polling sites in Washington, D.C., in part because many did not receive the absentee ballots they had requested. Similar problems arose in Pennsylvania, Baltimore and elsewhere.

"In 46 states and the District of Columbia, voters this year will have the right to vote by mail, but as we saw just yesterday that right is implemented with varying degrees of effectiveness," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testified at a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee hearing on voting rights on Wednesday.

Benson said states and local election offices can run more efficient and safe elections this year if they have enough resources. She noted that expanding mail-in voting can be costly, but states are strapped for funds.

Congress has already approved $400 million to help election offices respond to the pandemic, but states say they need much more. Most have expanded mail-in voting for the primaries and expect to do so for the general election as well.

The Democratic-led House recently approved another $3.6 billion to help them do that, but the legislation is unlikely to pass in the Senate, which is under Republican control.

President Trump and others in the party have complained that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud and should be available on a limited basis, despite voters' concerns about the health risks of voting in person. While some mail-ballot fraud exists, studies have shown that it's extremely rare.

"This pandemic has blown up our economy. It's suppressed our liberties. Let's not blow up our elections," Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, told the House panel. His group has sued several states and counties for failing to keep their voter rolls up to date, something Fitton claims makes mail-in voting exceptionally vulnerable to fraud.

"I view this as the real threat to the integrity of our elections," he said. "Voter registration lists throughout the country are out of date, containing registrations for voters who no longer live at the stated address, who have died or are no longer eligible to vote."

But Benson said there are many protections in place, such as signature matching and the ability to track the location of a particular ballot, that prevent people from fraudulently voting by mail.

She was recently criticized by Trump for going down a "Voter Fraud path" for her plan to send absentee ballot applications to every Michigan voter in November.

Trump falsely claimed that Benson would be sending actual ballots to every voter and he threatened to withhold federal funding from the state, although he later backed off.

Stacey Abrams, the chair of Fair Fight Action, a voter advocacy group, told the House panel that in 2016 more than half of all states reported "zero substantiated allegations of fraud." She said eight states reported one case each and the remaining states reported only a small number of cases, "none sufficient to alter the outcomes of elections."

Abrams is among those pushing for an expansion of absentee voting, while retaining the ability for voters to cast their ballots in person, if they choose. She noted that mail-in voting does not work for everyone, including some or those with disabilities or no set addresses.

"We want every American who has the right to vote to know that they have the freedom to do so and the access. And that access will not exist if we have limited means and people have to put their lives at mortal risk in order to cast their ballot," she said.

In fact, all states currently offer both options. The debate is over the extent to which each option is available, and how much communities can afford.

Like other places holding primaries yesterday, the District of Columbia reduced the number of polling sites — from the usual 144 to 20 — because it expected the overwhelming majority of residents would vote absentee. But when hundreds of residents failed to get their ballots in time, they showed up in person, overwhelming the system.

Some voters reported have to wait for up to five hours. The waits were so long that the D.C. elections office took the unprecedented step of allowing some voters to email their ballots in.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.