Who among us, knowing what we know now about COVID-19, doesn’t wish we could roll back the clock to Jan. 1, 2020 and make very different decisions about testing, contact tracing, PPE and social distancing?
Well, we are staring at another possible disaster bearing down on us. I refer to the Nov. 3 election. There is still time to act wisely, but not much time.
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In the midst of coronavirus, we simply cannot conduct elections in the usual way. In-person voting represents a threat to the health of poll volunteers (most of whom are over age 60), and to voters themselves. We cannot ask people to risk their lives to exercise the right to vote. Wisconsin’s recent mess — with thousands disenfranchised because they didn’t receive their mail-in ballots in time, and people waiting in lines spaced out by six feet for multiple hours — is a flashing warning light.
Except November would be far worse than Wisconsin, because an in-person election held nationwide would throw the legitimacy of the results into doubt. At a time when we are a) bitterly divided; b) deeply distrustful; and c) facing a pandemic and economic depression, a disputed election might be more stress than we can stand.
Fortunately, alternatives to in-person voting are not that difficult to achieve with a little advanced planning. Vote-by-mail is already widespread. In the last election, 25% of votes were mailed in. Five states — Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii — already vote almost entirely by mail. Every registered voter receives a ballot at home. Twenty-eight others permit mail-in ballots upon request, and 17 states permit mailed ballots but require an excuse like travel, out of state study or disability.
To prevent fraud, states take a number of steps like signature matching, requiring other identifying information like the last four digits of a person’s Social Security number and using bar codes for each ballot. A study by the National Vote At Home Coalition found that of 100 million votes cast in Oregon since mail-in voting was adopted in 2000, there were only 12 cases of fraud.
President Donald Trump has thrust a stick into the spokes by suggesting that vote-by-mail disadvantages Republicans. But there is no data to support that, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. For one thing, the voters who would be most wary of in-person voting in the age of COVID-19 are the elderly. In 2016, voters over 65 were more likely to vote than any other age cohort and they gave 53% of their votes to Donald Trump.
As Rachel Kleinfeld reports, studies of mail-in voting in Colorado and Utah found that turnout increased by about 2%, but neither party got a boost. A newly published report from the Democracy and Polarization Lab at Stanford gathered mail-in voting data from California, Utah and Washington state since 1996 and found that voting by mail does not affect either party’s share of the electorate nor their percentage of the vote. It did modestly increase turnout.
So Trump’s worry that a vote-by-mail option would mean “you’d never have another Republican elected in this country again” is misplaced. The Republican secretary of state of Ohio, Frank La Rose, rejected that thinking, saying: “We’re fortunate that we’ve been doing vote-by-mail for a long time. We know how to do it, and we know how to get it done securely.”
Besides, the six swingiest of the swing states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina — already permit absentee ballots upon request without the need for an excuse. Just ask Trump, who votes absentee himself in the Sunshine State.
Voting by mail will require money (Congress already appropriated $400 million in the CAREs Act), manpower and time. States that require an excuse could easily adopt a one-time change to the law permitting COVID-19 to suffice as an excuse for 2020. States can also provide secure drop-off sites for ballots, as well as drive-thru options. Extending early voting (generally a terrible idea) makes sense when we are dealing with a new system for 75% of voters, and when poll workers will likely be scarcer than usual.
Standing in line with your neighbors to vote in your local school or church is a civic ritual that ranks with fireworks on the Fourth of July. It’s part of the pageant of patriotism. But this year, we’ll need to make other arrangements. We cannot risk a crisis of political legitimacy on top of everything else we’re saddled with.
The slogan for November should be: Mail it in!
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