How to avoid a national voting disaster on Nov. 3

Every state must prepare now for the worst-case scenario because of COVID-19. In a matter of weeks, it will be too late.

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Sharon Trask and other voters use hand sanitizer as they stand in line to vote at the Lincoln Lodge polling station in Chicago on March 17 amid the coronavirus outbreak. Voting by mail could ensure more people safely cast ballots on Nov. 3 if the pandemic persists or resumes.

James Foster/Sun-Times

Democracy is facing a test it can’t afford to fail.

Illinois and the nation need to get serious — right now — about holding a reliable election on Nov. 3.

No one is sure how the COVID-19 pandemic will progress. As one very worried local election official told us, “We have no idea what the situation will look like on Nov. 3.”

But unlike primary elections that some states have delayed — and which Illinois barely got in under the wire of responsible behavior — the national presidential election cannot be postponed. It must be held on schedule. And that means beginning preparations now for a worst-case scenario in every state.

Within a matter of weeks, it will be too late.

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The surest way to conduct a successful election, given the fear of the novel coronavirus outbreak continuing or resurfacing in the fall, is to do it all entirely by mail. Five states already do that — all ballots go through the mail. Four other states allow individual counties the option of doing so. But it took those nine states years to develop their systems and get the wrinkles out.

Even with the advantage of seeing how those states pulled it off, other states and territories can’t develop all-mail voting systems overnight.

Fortunately, Illinois is way ahead of many states, though our state doesn’t automatically mail a ballot to every voter. To vote in the March 17 primaries, Illinois voters could apply for a ballot online, fill it out at home when it arrived, sign it and return it in a postage-paid envelope, so no one had to hunt around for a stamp. Illinois, Chicago and Cook County also encouraged early voting, keeping down the Election Day crowds at polling places.

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Around the state, county clerks mailed out 295,000 ballots, of which about 230,000 were returned, according to unofficial tallies that will be made final on April 17. In Chicago, some 83,000 people voted by mail, compared with 34,000 who voted by mail in the March 2016 primary.

Still, 55% of voters in Chicago showed up at precinct polling places on March 17 to cast their ballots. And that was at a time when there were only 160 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, compared with the 13,549 on Tuesday.

On Nov. 3, if the coronavirus continues to spread, it might not be possible to find enough election judges to staff every neighborhood polling place or landlords willing to let their property be used for voting.

Election authorities have the right to commandeer public property, but battling innumerable schools, park districts and other local governments for the right to set up voting machines might be an impossible chore on a tight deadline.

Illinois should improve its system by zealously building on the public education campaign it used for the primary, encouraging people to vote early or by mail.

It also should set up a substantial network of dedicated and secure drop boxes where people could drop off their ballots, giving them peace of mind that their ballots won’t get lost in the mail. Mailboxes are harder to find these days. Nationwide, the Postal Service has removed about 14,000 boxes over the past five years.

Every state that switches to an all-mail system will have to have a robust signature verification system, including an appeals process for those whose signatures are rejected. They also will have to build in thorough audits to ensure votes are counted properly.

If, as in Illinois, the other states offer Election Day registration, some polling places will have to remain open so people can vote on the spot. And they will have to prepare for post-election litigation because some losing candidates are likely to challenge the validity of mailed-in ballots.

On Tuesday, Texas Democrats went to court to demand a vote-by-mail election in the fall. But voting by mail isn’t the only change that should be made, and the aim in general should be to avoid waiting until late autumn before scrambling to prevent a disaster.

No state should allow itself to be in the position of Wisconsin on Tuesday, that is to say, where only five of 180 primary election polling places were open in the entire city of Milwaukee. Lines stretched for blocks, and many people reported the absentee ballots they requested never arrived in the mail.

Across the country, every jurisdiction should be working now to provide voters on Nov. 3 with safe and secure alternatives to voting in person. Nobody should have to walk into a polling place to vote if COVID-19 is a continued or renewed danger. Nobody should find that their polling place never opened.

It’s possible, even probable, that Republicans in many states will resist all of these necessary changes, thinking the lower the turnout on Nov. 3, the better their party’s election prospects, including in the race for president. They’ll tell you their worry is vote fraud, but there is little evidence that’s a real problem.

If they believe in democracy, they won’t let that kind of thinking get the best of them.

Every state must go into overdrive — now — to assure full, fair and smooth elections on Nov. 3.

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