March 18, 2020

With Unprecedented Disruptions From Coronavirus, Wyden And Merkley Introduce Bill to Expand Oregon-Style Vote-By-Mail and Ensure Americans are Still Able to Vote

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to introduce legislation that would ensure Americans are able to vote this year, despite disruptions caused by COVID-19. The bill would expand early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states, and allowing voters who did not receive an absentee ballot to use a printable ballot currently only provided for military and overseas voters. The legislation comes as five states have already postponed primaries in response to the pandemic.

Senators Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Chris Coons, D-Del., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Doug Jones, D-Ala., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., are also cosponsors.

“The rest of the country is realizing that Oregon has it right - vote by mail is increasingly looking like the only way for states to conduct elections. If Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Kentucky had vote by mail on the books years ago, they wouldn't have had to cancel their elections. It will give us the highest chance of avoiding delayed elections and ensuring Americans can exercise their Constitutional rights. No one should have to put their health at risk to vote,” Wyden said.

“The coronavirus is having a huge impact on all aspects of our lives, but we can't let it derail our democracy,” said Merkley. “Luckily, mail-in-voting is a tried and true voting method that would allow Americans to vote without having to travel to polling places or gather in crowds—and it’s been massively successful in Oregon for nearly four decades. Now is the time to bring this practice to the national stage so we can ensure that even during this crisis, the American people can safely exercise their sacred right to vote.”

Natural disasters and public health emergencies are occurring more frequently and with greater impact than ever before, affecting the ability of victims and first responders to vote on Election Day. The lack of voting options in many states and sufficient emergency ballot procedures can leave voters disenfranchised. COVID-19, hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the wildfires in the Western United States are recent examples of the damage and disruption that public health emergencies and natural disasters can cause. We have already seen limited incidences of poll workers not showing up on Election Day this year, due to fears of the coronavirus. The recent tornadoes in Tennessee on Super Tuesday also greatly impacted voting in the state. With fears of catching the coronavirus, the priority must be to reduce the number of people voting in person at any given time, by allowing for early voting and for all people to be able to vote from their homes using vote-by-mail. As a last resort, voters who did not receive their absentee ballots will also need access to a printable mail in ballot that has so far only been made available to military and overseas voters.

Emergencies in the proximity of an election day can have a lasting impact as polling places deal with flooding, lack of power, or other unsafe conditions. The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA) represents a commonsense solution to ensuring the 2020 elections, and future elections, are resilient to emergencies and that we are protecting the voting rights of those in harm’s way as well as emergency responders. 

The bill would specifically:

  • Ensure that voters in all states have 20 days of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail and ensure states begin processing votes cast during early voting or by mail 14 days before Election Day to avoid delays in counting votes on Election Day.


  • Guarantee that all voter registration applications submitted by mail or online before and at most 20 days prior to election day are deemed valid.


  • Require states and jurisdictions to establish a publicly available contingency plan to enable eligible Americans to vote in the case of an emergency and establish an initiative to recruit poll workers from high schools and colleges as well as from other State and local government offices. 


  • Provide all voters with the option of online requests for absentee ballots and require states to accept requests received before or 5 days prior to election day.


  • Guarantee the counting of absentee ballots postmarked or signed before the close of the polls on Election Day and received on or before the 10 days following Election Day.


  • Ensure states provide self-sealing envelopes with prepaid postage for all voters who request a voter registration application, absentee ballot application or an absentee ballot.


  • Require states to offer their downloadable and printable absentee ballots under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) to domestic voters who requested but did not receive an absentee ballot for the 2020 election and to voters with disabilities who requested an absentee ballot and reside in a state that does not offer secure accessible remote ballot marking.


  • Charge the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) with creating a uniform domestic downloadable and printable absentee ballot that can be used starting in 2022.


  • Direct all states that do not already use ballot tracking systems to use envelopes with an Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) to allow voters to track their ballot for the 2020 general election and successive elections until a state implements a domestic ballot update service.


  • Charge the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in consultation with the General Services Administration (GSA), EAC and the United States Postal Service to create a domestic ballot update service for election officials to provide voters with updates on their ballot for the 2024 election and beyond.


  • Ensure states implement a specified signature curing procedure.


  • Provide additional accommodations for Native American voters including allowing tribes to designate ballot pickup and drop-off locations and not requiring residential address for election mail.


  • Authorize funds necessary to reimburse states for the cost of implementing the Act, such as providing additional absentee ballots and prepaid postage, and purchasing additional ballot scanners and absentee ballot drop boxes.


  • Authorize funds necessary to reimburse states for the cost of developing or purchasing and implementing secure remote ballot marking to enable voters with disabilities to vote by mail.


  • Provide $3 million in additional funds to the EAC for supporting states in implementing the Act.


Wyden has long pushed to expand vote-by-mail nationwide to improve accessibility for seniors, working families, college students and others who might have difficulty voting in person. He has introduced universal vote by mail legislation every Congress since 2006. Wyden was the first senator elected in an all-mail election in 1996.

A copy of the bill text is available here.

A one-page summary of the bill is available here.