EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Advocates are pushing for expanding mail-in ballots and procuring safer polling places in November in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Already this year, several states expanded vote by mail and made it easier for people to cast absentee ballots, Democratic lawmakers said.

“This is not a partisan issue,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We will see a record number of (mail-in and absentee) ballots this year because many states already allow it and some people are afraid to go in person.”

The issue came up this morning at an online hearing of a subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary titled “Protecting the Right to Vote During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Proponents support the expansion to ensure voter participation at a time in which COVID-19 not only remains a threat but also has made people afraid to go out. But detractors say such expansion could lead to voter fraud or “vote harvesting.”

Mail-in and absentee ballots “should be reserved for an emergency. If you want your vote to be secure and counted, your best bet is to vote in person,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative educational foundation.

He told the committee the debate is likely to confuse Americans and undermine their confidence in the electoral system. “It will disrupt the election, not secure it.”

A pair of Texas lawmakers who support the expansion of mail-in voting, and the federal funding to make it happen, say they’re trying to protect voters’ right to cast a ballot amid a public health threat.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas

“It’s confusing to me as to what the controversy is surrounding making it easier for people to be safe and to participate in their elections,” said El Paso’s U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. “This global pandemic has taken over 100,000 lives and counting. In my own county, the number of deaths increases every day. We know if people aren’t social-distancing we’re putting ourselves at risk.”

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, said lawmakers in favor of the expansion aren’t trying to play politics amid the pandemic.

“We are not trying to do away with in-person voting. We just want to make sure that in-person voting is safe for everyone and that everyone has the option of voting from home,” said Garcia, who represents a portion of the Houston area.

She said Americans during the pandemic are already banking, shopping and ordering groceries without leaving their homes. “We are doing everything from home. So, frankly, it makes sense to vote from home.”

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas

Escobar said expanding mail-in options is especially important for those who live near the southwestern border because their population has proven more susceptible to COVID-19.

“Latinos and African Americans are dying at disproportionately higher rates because they are more at risk,” Escobar said, referring to historically higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other underlying conditions.

She noted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the Trump administration’s lead coronavirus task force members, has said those communities are as much at risk of dying as people who live in assisted living facilities.

“We have a fundamental obligation to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the people we represent,” Garcia said.

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