Last week several states went to the polls, but with reduced voting turnout—and five other states have postponed their elections until June. The reality is that, while the November election seems like a long way away, November is not very far off.
Increasingly, this is being viewed as a long-term threat. At best, a vaccine is seen as 12 to more likely 18 months away.
As Dr. Tom Frieden, who formerly headed the CDC, put it, “The Covid-19 pandemic will change our world forever. Until it is controlled, we will all need to change how we wash our hands, cover our coughs, greet others and how close we come to others. We will rethink the need for meetings and conferences. We will need broadband for all as a public utility like mail or water. We will need to support the vulnerable, even if only because their illness can risk our health.”
As the Atlantic put it: “From a public-health standard, the pandemic will not end for another 18 months. The only complete resolution—a vaccine—could be at least that far away.”
Until then, “we will be vulnerable to subsequent waves of the new coronavirus even if the current wave happens to ebb.”
This year happens to be an election year. While they could postpone state primary elections until June, they cannot postpone the November general election, which is mandated by the Constitution.
But that only addresses the issue of the campaign—not the election itself.
While states understandably were caught flat-footed in the face of the threat, with eight months to prepare, the US government should not be.
There is a simple answer, one that frankly we should have started to implement many years ago—shift from in-person voting to mail-in ballots. We have seen several states including Oregon do it, and we have had our own all-mail ballot elections here in Yolo County for special elections without large issues.
Interestingly enough, while this column has been in preparation for several days now, the NY Times Editorial Board has issued a similar recommendation to go to all-mail elections.
They note: “It is almost certain that the 2020 election won’t look like any we’ve seen before.”
There will be unprecedented challenges to a nationwide vote during a time when there is a need to keep people physically separated.
The Times believes: “The most practical fix is to make voting by mail a clear and free option for every eligible voter in the country.”
They note the good news is that five states already have all or most of their voters vote by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Moreover, in 2016, nearly one-quarter of all voters cast ballots by mail.
The US election system is rather unique. We don’t actually have a national election. We have a national election day. Instead, voting occurs in local voting booths, tabulated by local counties, and cumulated by the states to determine electors.
That means that such changes would have to occur at the county level, but coordinated by state and federal government.
The Times points out that there are a number of advantages to voting by mail.
First is “turnout is significantly higher nearly everywhere voting by mail is used.”
That is not a huge surprise. It is easier to vote and drop a ballot in the mail than to drive to a polling place, wait in line, and vote.
Second, they note that “voters of all political persuasions use it and like it.”
Third and interestingly enough, because locally people like Bob Dunning have complained about the potential for fraud, “it’s safe and secure. Bar codes allow for ballot tracking and validation.”
They continue, saying that “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, and has documented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud.”
There is a lot of work to do, however, to pull it off at a national level. They note: “In 2018, 31 states had fewer than 15 percent of their ballots cast by mail. Switching to all or nearly all voting by mail will require printing at least 70 million additional ballots.”
They point out: “These ballots will have to be ready to go out by Labor Day, less than six months from today. They must be postage-paid, so that no one has to pay a penny to vote, and there need to be enough machines and poll workers available to start counting ballots as soon as they come in. Signature-matching software can help ensure ballots are coming from the voters they were sent to, without introducing partisan bias into the process. And where signatures don’t match, voters should have an opportunity to fix the problem and cast a provisional ballot if necessary.”
This would not be free. It would cost an estimated $2 billion, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice.
But while that sounds like a lot, given the $1 trillion stimulus plan Congress is considering, it seems like an easy solution to what could otherwise be a vexing problem.
And if it works, maybe this becomes the new norm—in a good way. It is long past time to modernize our voting. In fact, it was just a year ago we asked whether we should do this locally.
—David M. Greenwald reporting