June 23, 2020

After Ranking Member Klobuchar Push to Pass Legislation on Protecting Voters from COVID-19, Blunt Agrees to Hearing and Additional Funding for Election Safety

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Klobuchar has led effort to ensure Americans can vote safely during the health crisis

Today on the Senate floor, as voters cast ballots in six states, Klobuchar asked for unanimous consent to pass the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, legislation that would expand vote by mail, early voting, and provide funding for poll workers; Republicans objected  

WATCH VIDEO OF KLOBUCHAR’S FLOOR REMARKS HERE

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, announced that he will hold a Rules Committee hearing on election safety and agreed on the need for additional funding to protect elections from coronavirus. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee, has pushed Senator Blunt to hold such a hearing for months. 

“With less than six months left before the general election, Congress must act now to ensure that states have the resources and funding they need so all Americans can safely participate in our democracy. I’m pleased there will be a hearing to address these issues -- a step I have long called for -- but that’s not enough. We must immediately vote on my legislation to ensure voters can safely cast their ballots during November’s elections,” Klobuchar said in response to the announcement of the hearing.  

Today, Klobuchar spoke on the floor of the Senate and asked for unanimous consent to pass the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, legislation to help state election officials meet this pandemic by expanding existing election practices like voting by mail and early voting. The unanimous consent failed due to objections from Senate Republicans.

The Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, introduced on March 18, 2020 by Klobuchar and Senator Ron Wyden (D-WA) and now with 35 cosponsors, would ensure Americans are still able to vote during the pandemic by expanding early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee voting by mail to all states as well as providing funding to train poll workers. Most of the provisions in her legislation have now been included in the HEROES Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in May.

Klobuchar has consistently encouraged her colleagues to join her in taking action to ensure voters can cast their ballots safely during the coronavirus pandemic. 

On June 11, Klobuchar led her colleagues in a letter to Blunt, Ron Johnson (R-WI) of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in calling for hearings on the threat coronavirus poses for elections.

In May, Klobuchar took to the Senate Floor Klobuchar to ask for unanimous consent to lift restrictions that prevent states from accessing election funding designated to help them safely carry out elections during the pandemic, Republicans objected to Klobuchar’s request

In April, Klobuchar wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on the need to expand mail voting, early voting, and online voter registration. In March, Klobuchar and Wyden wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, highlighting the need “to protect the foundation of our democracy by ensuring that every eligible American can safely cast a ballot in the upcoming elections.”

Before the Senate considered the third relief package, Senators Coons and Klobuchar wrote a letter to Pelosi, McCarthy, McConnell, and Schumer, urging them to include funding to protect the 2020 elections. In April, Klobuchar, Coons, and Wyden published an op-ed in USA TODAY, highlighting the need for the fourth relief package to include money and direction for states to expand vote-by-mail and early voting.

Full transcript of remarks below and video available HERE

SENATOR KLOBUCHAR: Madam president. 

PRESIDING OFFICER: The senator from Minnesota. 

KLOBUCHAR: Madam president, I come to the floor today to urge the senate to address the threat the coronavirus poses to our elections and to take immediate action to pass my legislation to ensure voters do not have to choose between their right to vote and their own health. Today is election day, madam president, in Kentucky and in New York and in Virginia. There are run-off elections in North Carolina and in Mississippi as well. As we speak, voters in these states are experiencing what it is to vote in the middle of a global pandemic. 

If the past few months are any indication, for many, casting a ballot today will not be safe and it will not be easy. The coronavirus has caused unprecedented disruptions in the daily lives of Americans. In order to protect voters and poll workers, this pandemic has forced us to make changes to how we vote. 16 states postponed their presidential primaries or transitioned their primaries to almost entirely voting by mail. 

We've seen Democratic and Republican governors across the country issue waivers allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail during the pandemic. That includes in states like Hew Hampshire, Republican governor. 

I states like Ohio where a Republican governor that has focused on vote by mail, in states like Maryland where the governor has been devoted to vote by mail and including in states like Missouri. 

While it is important that individual states are taking action to protect voters during this pandemic, we must remember that in the end this is a national pandemic. It's not just a pandemic in Vermont or in Utah, it is national. It is the responsibility of this nation, of this nation's government, of this Congress to ensure that states have the funds they need to make our elections more resilient and to make sure that voters don't have to risk their health to cast their ballots. 

When we have a national threat, whether it be international conflict, we do not expect an individual state to be able to respond. In World War II when Pearl Harbor was bombed, we didn't say, oh, Hawaii, you go deal with that yourself. We in this Congress has acknowledged that this pandemic has national consequences in how we responded with the CARES Act, with how the House has responded with the HEROES Act that I hope we consider very soon in this Congress, with the fact that even when it comes to voting that this Congress, with bipartisan support, this U.S. Senate, voted to give over $400 million originally to the states. There was some issues with how that money was given out that we are trying to fix, but nevertheless it was a down payment on the fact that even at the beginning of the pandemic based on what we've seen in Wisconsin, we anticipated that there would be problems for voting, that there would be a massive change in how elections are held.

You have a place like New York state where only 5% have voted by mail. States like my state, despite having the highest voter turnout in the country, Minnesota, only 25% of people, on average voted by mail, and now you're seeing switchovers to 50%, 60% of the people of every single state in the nation asking to vote from home or in the alternative asking for safe voting places by keeping voting places open longer for early voting. By training poll workers so we do not need to depend on our senior citizens to be staffing the polling locations when they are the most vulnerable to the kroin coronavirus -- the coronavirus. 

This is common sense, this is why governors from Republican states and Democratic states all across the nation are asking for help from -- from Washington. Today in Kentucky and New York election officials are putting more than $36 million of federal funding to good use to provide those workers with protective equipment and sanitizing supplies, funding for postage, for mail-in ballots, purchase additional equipment, and to cover the costs of moving poll locations to accommodate more people. I am proud to have fought to secure that funding and I appreciate Senator Blunt, my colleague who I know is going to be here shortly who is chair of the Rules Committee for assisting and making sure that that funding was designated as well as Senator Shelby and Senator Leahy and Senator Coons and so many others that have worked on this important issue. It's a good first step, but let us remember this is simply still the primaries in a few states. If you talk to election officials across the country, they will tell you it wasn't enough that they desperately need more resources for the general election when so many more people vote. 

Support from the federal government is vital because we have seen states struggle when it comes to administering elections during the pandemic. We also know it is not like they have a reservoir of funding right now to deal with, which is one of the reasons that we want to pass the HEROES Act.. So many of our states and local governments are struggling right now, and that's why it's so important to designate funding as we move forward, and I hope we will soon, to discuss the HEROES Act to be able to help pay for elections. Support from the federal government is vital because we have seen states struggle when it comes to administering elections. 

With fewer than six months left before the general election, Congress must act now to ensure that states have the resources and funding that they need. A lot of times you hear, well, it's only six months, so why would we do funding now? Look at the fact that we were able to assure the states that the money was going to be out there for them a few months ago for the primaries that they were able to either spend their own money because they knew that money was coming or spend designated money. That's how this works. We're no longer in a normal situation. We're in a situation where states are having to rearrange how they do elections all over the country to make it safe and to allow people to vote from home. We've seen the chaos and disenfranchisement that will happen if we don't act soon. The Wisconsin primary will forever be etched in the memory of our nation, voters stood for hours in the cold and rain wearing garbage bags and homemade masks just to be able to exercise their right to vote. In Milwaukee there were just five polling locations open instead of the 180. Almost six hundred thousand people live in Milwaukee, including two thirds of the state’s African American population The closure of so many polling places made it even heard for people without easy access for transportation to get to a polling location and it caused unnecessary crowding with lines wrapping around blocks. 

As a result voters were disenfranchised and some even contracted the coronavirus. According to local health officials nearly 70 people in Wisconsin who either voted in person or served as poll workers contracted the virus as a result of that election. And then earlier this month in Georgia, thousands of people went to the polls and were also met with long lines and confusion. Reports from Atlanta indicate that voters faced malfunctioning machines and some voters never received the mail-in ballots they requested. So instead of being able to safely vote from home many were forced to show up in person on election day. 

I was particularly struck by the words of Anita Heard, an 80-year-old woman from Atlanta who actually marched with Dr. King, and she was the first person in line at her polling location at 6:00 A.M. waiting to vote this year. Anita called the long lines and waits unfair and ridiculous. She is right. In Fulton County, one voter, a mom, sat on a lawn chair holding her infant son in one hand and umbrella in the other. She waited more than three hours to vote. She said she won't leaving because it was important to her and to her son, the one day that she would be able to tell him she waited to vote for him. 

In America we should not have to wonder if voting machines will be operational or if they are going to be able to receive their ballot on time to make it count. 

Jose Andres, the remarkable chef who helps feed people in areas struck by natural disasters announced a plan to provide food, water, and resources for people standing hours in line on election day. He is doing his part to address this issue as are so many people across the country, including as I mentioned Democrat and Republican secretaries of state and governors, and I appreciate Senator Blunt, the Chairman of the Rules Committee is here. And as I said he worked to help us get that initial funding. 

Experts have warned that today in Kentucky we may see a repeat of the chaos that we have seen in early primaries. Reports indicate that fewer than 200 polling places are open in the entire state down from the 3,700 in a typical election year. We are glad Kentucky has voting by mail. A number of people have voted from home, but I think we also know based on what we've seen in these other states, and this is just based on facts, not on partisanship, it's based on facts, we know that 200 polling locations in a state of that size will not be enough. Not in the primary, but it certainly won't be enough in a general election. In order to protect the right to vote, we have to learn from states who are taking steps to make voting safe and easy. 

Primary turnout this year has broken records in many states, especially when it comes to voting by mail. States like Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, New Mexico, Idaho, West Virginia, and North Dakota have all held successful elections by relying heavily on voting by mail. Again that's a primary where some of these states have less voters, not all of them, because they are smaller population states, and many of them were not dealing with a general election.

In West Virginia mail-in ballots increased from just 25,000 in 2018 to over 200,000 this year. In Pennsylvania, the number of mail-in ballots cast increased from 80,000 in 2018 to over 1.5 million this year. Voters and election officials across the country in red states and blue states are turning to casting a ballot from home. In addition to the five states that already hold their elections mostly by mail, Utah,Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii and Washington, and I note those states are not all blue states, including particularly Utah, and Colorado which is known as a purple state, three states, California, Nevada, New Jersey and also the District of Columbia have decided to send all voters absentee ballots for all elections this year and 13 states have decided to send all voters absentee ballots applications. 

These decisions weren’t made as I note on a partisan basis. Both Republican and Democratic officials have decided to implement these policies to protect their voters. And I will also note that none of the five states that held their elections primarily by mail this year had major voter fraud scandals since transitioning to vote by mail. As "The New York Times" editorial board notes, states that use vote by mail have encountered essentially zero fraud, Oregon, the pioneer in this area, has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000 -- 2000 and has only documented about a dozen cases of fraud. Rounded to the seventh decimal point, that is 0.0000001% of all votes cast. 

We've all seen the president's tweets on this. We know these tweets are meant to hurt our democracy and people shouldn't fall for it because I just gave you the facts. 0.0000001% of all votes cast in the states that have been using this forever involving any fraud. We must set -- fraud. We must set the record straight and I appreciate that Senator Romney noted that -- in what he called his very Republican state, Utah, that almost everyone in his state votes by mail. In his words it works very, very well. 

Now is the time to reject any attempts to undermine political system, and mostly undermine people’s attempts to exercise their fundamental right to vote safely. 

What are you going to tell a veteran who has a preexisting condition like the guy who wrote me who served in Vietnam that said what is he supposed to do now? We have to allow them to vote from home. In the midst of this pandemic, we need to make sure no voter has to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote. That's why I'm urging my colleagues to support my legislation with Senator Ron Wyden which is cosponsored by 35 other senators, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act to help state election officials meet this pandemic head on. Our legislation doesn't require us to reinvent how we vote. Instead, our bill would overcome the challenges posed by the coronavirus by expanding existing election practices like voting by mail and early voting. It starts with guaranteeing every American the option to vote by mail. 16 states require voters to provide an excuse if they want to cast a ballot by mail. But during the pandemic, 13 of these states are allowing all voters to cast a ballot by mail without needing to provide an excuse. Democratic and Republican governors and secretaries of state, that is progress. 

So I would say while we still have three states that are still denying all voters the option to vote by mail, forcing them to choose between their health and their constitutional right and go through these hoops to do it. So why not put a standard in place on the federal level? That's what our bill does. Our legislation would also get help to the states. Again, my friend, Senator Blunt, is here. I appreciate, while he hasn't put a dollar amount on it, but his interest in looking at funding for this beyond this bill, I think is very helpful. Our bill called for $3.6 billion, which is what is in the HEROEs Act, funding to safely administer elections, and it would knock down barriers, this bill, to safely vote, like the requirement to have your ballot signed by a witness or a notary. 

These are requirements that disproportionately hurt minority voters, people without as much money. There's one story of someone sitting in a hospital room trying to get someone to notarize a primary ballot through a glass window, someone who has coronavirus. Are we really going to require them to do that? That's what you have to ask yourself, colleagues. The bottom line is it shouldn't be this hard to vote. 

I'm proud this bill has been endorsed by more than a dozen organizations including the group founded by former first lady Michelle Obama, including Voto Latino, including the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, National Urban League, Common Cause, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights.  

As I noted, the CARES Act included funding. It didn't include the standards that I think are necessary, but included the funding, and that's just the beginning. That was a down payment negotiated in the middle of the night. I know that because I was talking to my colleagues back then. This is the real deal to be able to help states in the general election. This money was included in the HEROEs Act.  

Public health experts have warned over and over again of the possibility of a new wave of this virus in the fall. We have to be ready. States are having this happen anyway. We should make sure that they have the funding to do it. I know we're going to be discussing the National Defense Authorization Act in the next few weeks at some point, and I think about that. Our defense is important, but remember this is about the defense of our democracy. The simple idea that this was a democracy, that it's not a dictatorship, that people should be able to go out there and exercise their right to vote no matter how they're going to vote, no matter what party they're going to vote for. And this is the moment and because of this pandemic we need to do it. 

Last thing I’ll mention, three polls released in the last couple of months showing overwhelming majority of voters, over 80% favor measures to make voting safe and easy. One of the polls, conducted in six battleground states showed that 74% of voters wanted their senators to support legislation in Congress to implement voting reforms, including a majority of Republican voters. Think about that. Voters across party lines want Congress to pass legislation that would guarantee the right to vote by mail and provide funding to states and make sure it's safe to vote. That's what this is about. And again, I thank my colleague, Senator Blunt, for all he has done and the fact that he was able to work with us when we did negotiate the CAREs ACt to make sure there was some funding and included as well as I mentioned Senator Shelby, Senator coons, Senator Leahy and others, but now is the time to prepare for what we have ahead and that is making sure everyone can vote safely. 

Mr. President, as if in legislative session, I ask unanimous consent that the Rules Committee be discharged from further consideration of S. 4033, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, and the Senate proceed to its immediate consideration. That the bill be considered read a third time and passed and the motion to reconsider be considered made and laid upon the table with no intervening action or debate. 

PRESIDING OFFICER: Is there objection?

SENATOR BLUNT: Madam president. 

PRESIDING OFFICER: The Senator from Missouri. 

BLUNT: Reserving the right to object, and with great consideration for Senator Klobuchar's dedication on these issues, many of which, as she has pointed out, we have worked together on and I think we'll continue to, I just don't think this is the time to make this kind of fundamental change. I will admit that the very first legislation after the 2018 elections, the House passed a bill, but again it was a bill that would provide the federal government with unprecedented control over elections in this country.  

Despite the fact that for almost 250 years now, the states have been responsible for this particular government responsibility and to, quote, yet another time senator and then President Obama in October of 2016 pointed out that the very strength of our system was the diversity of the system. I think one of the strengths of the system is the amount of local responsibility and local answerability, frankly, for how the system works on election day. Senator Klobuchar pointed out that we're fewer than six months until  the election.  

As a matter of fact, in our committee, I intend to hold a hearing next month on the problems that we've seen develop with this move toward more people wanting to vote not at the polling place on election day and how some states have dealt with those problems effectively and how others haven't. And I'll also say, to follow up on one of Senator Klobuchar's points, I think funding is one thing. Helping the states help themselves is something that I think we can still do. We have done a considerable amount of that up until now since the 2016 elections with a big commitment in the CAREs Act to make money available for states to regulate their elections and be able to afford to do that. 

I think we can, will, and should take another look at that. But six months before an election is a dangerous time to change responsibility. Now I think to be absolutely clear that any time this is a responsibility that's better done at the local level. But when you implement a new voting system with a big first election, that's a problem. We saw that in Georgia recently. 

Where by the way, Georgia was complying with the request that both Senator Klobuchar and I and others made to have, get a system in place that has a ballot trail, an absolutely worthy goal. And Georgia followed up. But even then, it might have been better if they could have followed up on election that wasn't quite the same high-profile, high-turnout election that their first experience had it. 

The responsibility for changing the system is hard enough in the best of times, and I think the states have had lots of time. My state and other states have changed their law to allow more access to absentee ballots. And some states -- as a matter of fact, not even absentee ballots. I got corrected by that with one of our election officials the other day. No really we call them mail-in ballots, though in Missouri up until now we always called them absentee ballots. 

Though one of the absentee excuses had always been unable to get to the polls because of health. But in the mail-in ballot ability to, in our state to eliminate for some ballots because of COVID-19 or health, eliminate the notary requirement, states have done this. They had a lot of time. They had a lot of notice. Most of them dealt with this, and more importantly, if it works, they get the credit. If it doesn't work, they don't have anybody else to blame. And they are working really hard because of that to make it work. The House bill was offered the first time in this body not long after it passed, in March of 2000 I objected to, again, the federalization of the election process. Not the assistance, not the help, but the federalization of the process. In May of 2020 the House passed yet another bill. That's the bill we're talking about today or something like it. 

This time it was a bill that Democrats said would assist states with the pandemic. First we were going to assist states because of ballot security. Now we're going to assist states because of the pandemic. There has been a real desire at the federal level to take over the election process. Again, I don't think that's a good idea. And if it was a good idea, it wouldn't be a good idea six months before the election. The provisions in the new bill are really about the same as the provisions in the old bill. They would provide the federal government with unprecedented control over elections in this country. This bill represents a one-size-fits-all federal answer to a problem that I think the federal government is not the best place to answer. The estimated money needs of the states are something I'm willing to and think we should continue to talk about, but funding to accept the new situation they find themselves in is different than centralizing the process. 

Instead of providing states with flexibility to deal with emergency situations, for instance, this bill does just the opposite. This bill tells states how to run virtually every aspect of their election. It takes away authority of the states to determine their own process for voter registration. In fact, it requires all states to institute online voter registration at a time when we're really more concerned than we used to be about what can happen to elections online. This bill tells states how many days of early voting they must have and where the voting locations, early voting locations need to be. It requires that all states accept online absentee ballot requests. You've got online voter registration. Then you have online absentee ballot requests, and offers the requirement for no excuse absentee ballots, which I guess according to my friend the election administrator would be mail ballots. I'm going to get better at explaining that phrase. It tells states how and when their ballots must be delivered. It tells them when they have to be counted. It requires states to permit ballot harvesting. Ballot harvesting is the only thing I think in a decade that a candidate elected to the House of Representatives was not seated because the House, this House, the current House of Representatives decided that ballot harvesting was the reason that person shouldn't be seated. That people went around, collected ballots, apparently  decided which ballots they were going to mail in and which ballots they were not going to mail in. If you look at the House determination that this person wasn't lawfully elected. But this bill actually requires states to allow individuals to go and collect ballots and turn them in in groups rather than some other way. 

Now, if states want to do that, they can do that, but apparently it wasn't good enough to seat a member of the House of Representatives from my party. It tells states how they must authenticate their ballots. It prohibits them, however, from using any form of voter identification to authenticate who the person is. It tells states what kind of envelopes they have to use to put their ballots in. But what doesn't it do? It doesn't recognize, again, that for almost 250 years states have successfully run elections in this country. And if the returns were in question, the people who were the local election officials and the state election officials were the people who were questioned. There was no ability to say, well, that's out of our hands, or, well, we don't really have anything to say about that. Some person in Washington tells us what we have to do about that. States have successfully run elections during national disasters. States have successfully run elections during pandemics. States have successfully run elections during wartime. 

March the 3rd, 2020 on Super Tuesday, early that morning, a tornado struck three counties in Tennessee. Election officials were able to use the flexibility they had as a state official to one, adjust the polling locations, two, move election equipment, to carry out the primary election successfully, and without challenge. None of that in my view would be allowed if this bill would have been in effect. Similarly, in response to the pandemic, many states, as I suggested Missouri has, have changed their law, looked -- their laws, looked to make this work, tried in most cases already in the primary or some other elections. States have changed their primary dates. They've expanded absentee balloting. They've expanded early voting. They've altered polling place procedures to ensure cleaning and sanitizing. They've worked to recruit more workers. This bill, in my view, doesn't acknowledge the important responsibility and answerability that local and state officials have on election day. That was a job I had for about 20 years. Part of that is the chief election official of the state. And I'll just tell you on election day, nothing is more important than voters feeling like their vote was cast in the right way and counted in the right way, and there was nobody but me to blame at the county level and then again at the state level if that didn't happen. 

So I think my friend Senator Klobuchar's comments are well intended and well motivated. I just think we have a fundamental difference on who makes these decisions. And I would recommend to all of my colleagues that if we ever make these kinds of changes, we make them long before six months before a presidential election. If this bill were law, state and local officials would not only lose the flexibility they now have but they would have a new place to pass the buck.  

This is one of the desks that Harry Truman used on the Senate Floor, and he didn't have the pass the buck symbol yet, but he famously had behind his desk as president, the buck stops here. On these issues the buck stops with the person that you have chosen locally and statewide to run your elections. I think that continues to be the best course for us to follow. And, Madam President, I object. 

KLOBUCHAR: Madam president? 

PRESIDING OFFICER: The objection is heard. The Senator from Minnesota. 

KLOBUCHAR: I want to thank my colleague for his work and his friendship. We obviously don't agree on every aspect of this. By the way, I did enjoy hearing his desk story. I didn't know he had Harry Truman's desk. I actually when I got to the Senate asked for Hubert Humphrey’s desk, the happy warrior. Eight months later the desk arrived and they accidentally had given me the desk of Gordon Humphrey, the former senator from New Hampshire which I had for quite a while. In a new Senate I one day opened up the desk top and saw they had replaced it with the desk of Hubert Humphrey. 

So I will give these comments in the spirit of the happy warrior and that is that while you and I disagree on setting these standards at this moment, I think we should. I think what if not now, when, when it comes to things like not having notaries for getting a ballot and things like that. I am heartened by the fact that one, we're having the hearing that I’ve been asking for. I think it's really important. I appreciate that. On this election, this upcoming election. And two, that you continue to be open to discussing with me and with the appropriations committee the funding as we go into November. I think that's really going to be important for all voters, whether it's red, blue, or purple states. We know that so many people vote by mail, including the president of the United States ballot from Palm Beach, Florida. And we all want to have that ability and make sure that the people of our states have an ability to either vote by mail or vote safely at the polling places this fall. Thank you very much. I yield the floor, Madam President. 

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