May 14, 2020

On Senate Floor: Following Requests from Republican and Democratic Election Officials, Ranking Member Klobuchar Pushes to Pass Legislation to Make it Easier for States to Access Emergency Election Funding

Klobuchar asked 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  

WATCH VIDEO OF KLOBUCHAR’S REMARKS HERE

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee with jurisdiction over federal elections, spoke on the floor of the Senate and called on her Republican colleagues to pass legislation - requested in a letter from Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate of Iowa - that would make it easier for states to access emergency election funding in the CARES Act. This legislation would cost Congress and tax payers nothing, but would waive a requirement that states provide a 20 percent match in funding for COVID-19 election funding. During this unprecedented crisis states have seen their revenues plummet. Requiring a 20 percent match on emergency funds has proven to be an obstacle to states accessing these funds. The unanimous consent failed due to objections from Senate Republicans, despite the fact that election officials across the country have raised significant concern with the match requirement.  

Klobuchar also called on her Republican colleagues to pass her legislation, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020. The legislation, introduced on March 18, 2020 and now with 36 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, and ensuring there are measures in place to protect voting rights. Most of the provisions in her legislation have now been included in the HEROES Act, introduced in the House of Representatives this week.

Full transcript of remarks below and video available HERE

KLOBUCHAR: Mr. President, I come to the floor today to urge the Senate to immediately take action to address the issue of elections and specifically to address technical changes to the 400 million dollars in election security funding passed in the CARES Act. And to talk about the coronavirus threat to our democracy itself.

Sixteen states have already postponed their presidential primaries or transitioned their primaries to almost entirely voting by mail. We've seen Republican and Democratic governors across the country from states like West Virginia, Indiana, the state of the presiding officer, New York, and Kentucky, issue waivers allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail during the pandemic. This includes states that used to have requirements that you have to give a reason to even get a mail in ballot to vote from home.

So both Democrat and Republican governors have way this not in every state, but in a number of states. While it is important that individual states are taking action to protect voters during this pandemic, it is the responsibility of us -of 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.

We must do this, because as we have seen of the last few weeks, not all states are doing everything they can to protect voters. That is sad, but it is true. And what's coming before us in the fall is a national election. 

Just yesterday, we learned that the attorney general of Texas has asked the Texas Supreme Court to stop county election officials from letting voters who are afraid of getting the coronavirus to vote by mail, he basically went to court and said that the counties who are giving out these ballots should stop. He tried and he is continuing to try to stop them from simply sending out ballots to voters who are afraid to vote in person.

Some of them have pre-existing conditions. Some of them are veterans who served our country, some of them are seniors - and basically in this one state - and by the way, there's other things going on in other states - the attorney general is trying to stop them from actually voting from home. 

Under Texas law, you have to have an excuse in order to vote by mail. This pandemic, as we know has killed more than eighty five thousand Americans and local officials in Texas have told their voters that the coronavirus and they've looked at the law and said it is a valid excuse to request a mail in ballot.

I guess it is. I would think it is, but the Texas attorney general disagrees and has asked the Texas Supreme Court to stop these local election officials from sending voters a mail in ballot that Mr. President is a disgrace. We shouldn't be playing politics with people's lives. Even the most cynical Americans believe that. They know people play politics all the time, but they don't think you should play it with their lives.

And we know from what happened in Wisconsin that people who show up to vote during this crisis are in fact risking their health if precautions are not taken. A little over a month ago, both Democratic and Republican voters and independent voters in Wisconsin stood for hours in the cold, and in the rain, wearing garbage bags and homemade masks in order to cast their votes. There were just five polling locations open in Milwaukee instead of the usual 180 and two in Green Bay instead of the usual 30. With two thirds of Wisconsin's African-American voters living in Milwaukee. There is no question that this vast reduction in polling places without adequate time to transition to mail voting ended up disenfranchising voters and particularly in this case African-American voters. At the same time we saw people trying to vote in whatever way they could. Trying to mail in their ballots even when it was at the last minute. 

Now health officials say that more than 67 people in Wisconsin may have become infected with the coronavirus as a result of that election. This is unacceptable. No one should have to choose between exercising their right to vote and protecting the health of themselves and their loved ones. 

What happened in Wisconsin will be forever etched in the memory of our nation. We can’t allow this to happen again. And in the face of this, yesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court actually struck down the governor’s stay at home order. We should be taking steps forward now, not backward. 

Public health experts have warned of the possibility of another more serious outbreak of this virus in the fall. Congress must act now to get states the funding they need - we know the states are strapped, every single state in this country is strapped - and even if we did nothing here, we know that there are going to be states that are going to get humongous requests for mail in ballots that they never got before. We know that in the state of Wisconsin, in Senator Johnson’s state. They traditionally are a state where about six percent of people vote by mail. Next door in my home state of Minnesota, it’s 25 percent - yes, more - but we know that it’s probably going to at least double and more. And so, even if, no matter what party you’re in - and this is why the Republican governors are asking for money, they may not agree with everything in my bill, but so many of them are asking for funding to be able to help them send out those ballots, to send out the postage, to be able to keep their polling places open a week, two weeks, we think 20 days in advance, so that people can actually vote themselves and not congregate in one location. That’s why this is happening right now. 

Nearly two months ago I introduced legislation, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, with Senator Wyden, along with 35 of my colleagues. The bill would simply ensure that every voter can cast their ballot by mail. That those who need it have expanded access to early in person voting and that states have the funding and resources necessary to safely administer elections.

This week the House introduced the COVID 4 bill. The fourth COVID relief package, the HEROES Act. And in it contains the election reforms package found in my legislation, as well as 3.6 billion dollars to help states protect our elections from COVID-19. That’s because mail in ballots, mailed in all over the country, we know that’s going to cost some change. We know that, but what’s the alternative? Having veterans who served on the battlefield in World War II, like the one I heard about yesterday telling him he can't vote or he has to go stand in line? What's the alternative? Telling seniors that they have to go stand in line, no, that's not a good alternative. 

The alternative is to make sure that we expand mail in ballots.

I know that negotiations will occur over the coming days regarding the next relief package. I look forward to working with my Democratic and Republican colleagues. I see the Chairman of the Rules Committee, Senator Blunt is here.

I look forward to working with him just as we have recently done on remote committee hearings which have actually by all accounts gone pretty well in the Senate over the last few weeks. But today, I'm here to push for a change that we know needs to be done and that is to make some changes to make sure that the first grouping of money, the 400 million that we got - the emergency funding in the first bill - can get out to the states, because of some changes that were made to the original proposal that' s made it hard for some of our states to be able to get that money out. There is a matching requirement and we see it already playing out.

Utah and Oklahoma have indicated they will only be able to access a portion of the funding they have been provided because they can't come up with the full match requirement. Florida has not yet accessed the funds at all because they're working to see if their legislature can accommodate the match funding. So these are all things that we have to work on not only now for this forthcoming legislation, but also to look at what we did in the first package. There are also issues with the reporting requirements in the bill. The last thing we want to do is to put undue burden on the states.

What I really want to focus on right now and the end of my remarks here is the need to pass the legislation in front of us and I know it will be negotiated, but to make sure that we fund and help our states fund our elections. Let us dispel the notion that vote by home is somehow a partisan issue. One of the states with the highest number of mail in ballots is the state of Utah. That is not exactly a bright blue state.

Another state that has a very high number of people voting from home is the state of Colorado. That's a state that tends to be a purple state. Then we have blue states like Oregon and Washington. Then we have a state like Arizona that again has a high number of people voting by mail.

Then on the other end, the states that don’t have as many people voting by mail - we have a mixture of states too - New York is like 5 percent right now and then we have a number of states like Alabama that don’t have a lot of people voting by mail. We don’t think - at least I don’t think - that every person is going to vote by mail in this November election, and so the key is to give them options.

And so the key is to give them options to be able to work with our states that if we do, do funding. And I'm so hopeful we'll be able to come to some kind of agreement here. If we do, do funding that, they can use that money to expand their vote by mail because we know the citizens are going to request it, but also to make sure that voting on Election Day is safe and there are ways to do that. And by encouraging more people if they don't want to vote by mail to be able to vote early, because less people will be there on the same day. 

So what do we see -- when we look at this? Well, a recent poll, some of the key states across the country shows that both Republican and Democratic voters, 70 to 80 percent of them want to be able to vote by mail. We have governors in states like New Hampshire, Republican, governors, Maryland and Ohio who want to vote by mail.

That's the way they want to go. We have a secretary of state who is Republican in the state of Washington who wants to vote by mail, her entire state basically votes by mail right now and they are good people who can talk about why this is working for them and how we can make it work.

But only if they have the funds because we are not going to be able to give them the funds say, in October and then be able to make sure that this has happened. So in conclusion, 17 states still have presidential primaries and numerous others have primaries for other federal offices and of course we have the general election on November 3rd, less than six months away.

We cannot let more Americans experience what we've seen, what just happened in Wisconsin with the garbage bags, with the homemade masks, with the people getting off work at the hospitals and standing in line, nobody should have to choose between their health and their right to vote, I'm committed to securing additional funding in the upcoming relief package, but we have fixes that we must make to the original funding that we made in the first bill, in the first piece of legislation because we need to get that funding out to our election officials today. 

For these reasons, Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to the immediate consideration of a bill at the desk to modify the provisions on funding for election security grants.

I further ask that the bill be considered and read three times and passed and that the motion to reconsider be considered made and laid upon the table.

PRESIDING OFFICER: Is there objection 

SENATOR RON JOHNSON (R-WI): Mr. President.

PRESIDING OFFICER: The Senator for Wisconsin 

SENATOR RON JOHNSON (R-WI): Reserving the right to object. Mr. President, there are many things that the Senator from Minnesota spoke to that I think most of us would agree with. This COVID crisis has created all kinds of issues that need to be thoroughly discussed and thoroughly debated. And I think there are a number of us on this side of the aisle. I'm just one standing up objecting to this unanimous consent request. But the good news for the Senator from Minnesota is in talking with those colleagues, they also agree there's -- there's a fair number of elements of this bill that they could probably find agreement with. And so I'm just rising to say and certainly extend my hand of cooperation with the Senator from Minnesota. Let's work on these things together.

This is not a bill that comes through my committee's jurisdiction, but I can say that the way we work it through my committee is we work across the aisle. Staff does not fly to work. We come to the conclusion if it's not ready for a particular markup. We go back and we -- we get the work done and then we frequently pass a piece of legislation on voice vote and then bring it to the floor. It's all been ironed out, there's no disagreement, there's no objection and we pass  those bills by unanimous consent. I think the problem here is this bill has never had any kind of committee markup, any committee work whatsoever.

And so I would just suggest that the Senator from Minnesota work with her committee. Her committee chair, I see the committee chair is here in the chamber, work on this, try and find those areas of agreement and then maybe we can pass this and maybe potentially passed  this by unanimous consent. But this piece of legislation is not ready. It has not gone through that process and as a result Mr. President I object.  

PRESIDING OFFICER: Objection is heard. 

KLOBUCHAR: Mr. President.

PRESIDING OFFICER: The Senator for Minnesota.

KLOBUCHAR: I appreciate the words of my colleague that he is willing to work with me on this bill. We know we need the immediate fixes to the first piece of legislation, but we also need to look forward to what we have in front of us. And that is to make sure that we hope our states to be able to conduct their election in a safe way.

So Democrats, Republicans or independents, anyone who wants to vote whatever party they're in is able to safely vote. And let's remember that while people were lining those streets to vote in Wisconsin, the President of the United States was able to request a mail in ballot from Palm Beach, Florida and vote in the comfort of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That's an image, a split screen that I don't think anyone wants to see. I think what we want to see is fairness for all Americans and you do that by ahead of time getting them the funding, by making sure we have rules in place that works for everyone, by acknowledging this has never been or should it be a partisan issue. And by telling all Americans, we work this out, we're getting the funding to the states. We're working with all your states. We put in some fair rules so that no American will be denied the right to vote.

Thank you, Mr. President I yield the floor.

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