Voting By Mail Will Save the 2020 Election

Opinion

Voting by Mail Will Save the 2020 Election

We can take some simple steps now to reduce the risks posed by the coronavirus outbreak.

By Dale Ho

Mr. Ho is the director of the Voting Rights Project at the A.C.L.U.

  • March 12, 2020
Voters with protective masks at a Detroit polling site during Michigan’s Democratic primary on Tuesday.
Voters with protective masks at a Detroit polling site during Michigan’s Democratic primary on Tuesday.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about during this election season — from Russian interference to meltdown scenarios like blackouts — the coronavirus pandemic has come along to threaten the administration of the presidential vote.

We are already witnessing significant disruptions to the campaign, with rallies canceled, audiences banned from the next presidential debate and suggestions to call off the parties’ nominating conventions.

And even the traditional model of in-person voting may be at risk. Assisted living facilities are often used as polling sites, but states including Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Florida have already made last-minute relocations. Since a majority of poll workers in the 2016 election were over the age of 60, it seems plausible that polling locations could face severe staffing shortages. In a worst-case scenario, many voters may be unable to vote in person because of illness or even government-imposed travel restrictions like those in Italy.

Given these possibilities, we have to make it as easy as possible for Americans to vote by mail in 2020, and to prepare for a likely surge in absentee ballots.

We can take four simple steps to reduce the risk of disenfranchisement:

Ramp up public education on voting by mail. The good news is that in most states, eligible voters can already vote by mail. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia either conduct their elections by mail or permit “no excuse” absentee voting. Americans have been increasingly voting by mail: More than 23 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail in the 2016 presidential elections, up from about 12 percent in 2004.

But it’s likely that most people are still unfamiliar with the rules for mail voting, which vary significantly from state to state. Rules can include restrictions on who can do so, whether voters must affirmatively request mail-in ballots, the process by which to request such ballots and deadlines for returning them.

Election workers checking mail-in ballots the day before Super Tuesday at the Orange County Registrar’s office in Santa Ana, Calif.
Election workers checking mail-in ballots the day before Super Tuesday at the Orange County Registrar’s office in Santa Ana, Calif.Credit…Jeff Gritchen/Orange County Register, via Getty Images

State and local governments, civic organizations and the private sector (social media and tech companies) should all pitch in to publicize information on how to vote by mail. The A.C.L.U., where I work, is doing its part: We’ve created a website on voting by mail that includes deadlines for requesting an absentee ballot in the remaining presidential primary states, as well as links for requesting absentee ballots and information on who can request absentee ballots in those states.

Broaden access to voting by mail. As noted, most states already offer universal access to mail-in voting. It’s a good idea in general and encourages higher turnout. In the 2018 midterms, for example, states that permit voting by mail had, on average, a 15.5 percentage point higher turnout than states that did not.

No-excuse absentee bills have moved in three more states recently: Virginia, where a bill has passedand awaits Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature, as well as Delaware and New Hampshire. These states should move quickly to adopt this method of absentee voting.

The remaining states should join them, and if they can’t  for example, because a constitutional amendment is required, as is the case in New York should consider designating the declaration of a statewide public health emergency as a permissible reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

If things get so bad that in-person voting becomes impractical, then states may even consider conducting elections almost entirely by mail, as is already done in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. Maryland is investigating thepossibility of such a switch.

Major election-year changes to voting laws like this would be hard to carry out, and should be made sparingly and only with deliberation — particularly when they precede a high-turnout general election. This year, however, it may simply be due diligence for states to at least consider the possibility. We may be in precisely the kind of unusual circumstance that warrants big changes to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised.

But we should resist the temptation to permit internet-based voting, which some states are experimenting with in smaller contexts. In an ill-advised move, the Puerto Rico legislature recently passed a bill to authorize electronic voting; it’s awaiting the governor’s signature. While we should do everything we can to make voting accessible, the consensus of cybersecurity experts is that we are simply not prepared to ensure the security of online voting. In this case, the cure would be worse than the disease.

Permit early processing of absentee ballots. At present, 15 states do not permit absentee ballots to be processed until Election Day. Among them is Michigan, which is allowing absentee voting for the first time in a presidential election (rather than limiting it to those with a particular excuse). Unsurprisingly, absentee ballots were heavily requested the primary, which has raised concerns that results could be substantially delayed if there is a similar surge in November.

A worst-case scenario would be if Michigan, the state with the closest win-loss margin in 2016, is again one of the decisive states in the 2020 election and we are unable to project a winner on election night. (Another decisive state, Pennsylvania, which also just adopted no-excuse absentee voting, also forbids processing absentee ballots until Election Day and could find itself in a similar situation.) It’s worrisome that the Michigan Legislature, however, has so far resisted calls to make the job of elections administrators easier by permitting the processing of early ballots.

The news media has a role to play here too. The public has grown accustomed to election night victory projections, but a surge in absentee voting might make it take a little longer this year. That should not cause alarm or inspire a lack of confidence in the system. The media can help set expectations, including the possibility that it will take longer to report election results and forecast winners. Ultimately, accessibility and accuracy are more important than speedy results.

Protect the rights of absentee voters. Absentee ballots are rejected at a higher rate than ballots cast in person. One reason may be that voters who cast their ballots by mail cannot obtain help from poll workers. Voters who need assistance must be able to get it, regardless of how they vote.

In January, a federal appeals court left in place an Arizona law prohibiting groups from collecting absentee ballots and delivering them to polling places. My organization and our allies like the Native American Rights Fund will challenge similar laws before November. Some restrictions may be necessary to protect absentee voters from interference by groups falsely claiming to offer assistance, which apparently occurred systematically in North Carolina in 2018. But such laws must not unduly interfere with well-intentioned efforts to help absentee voters.

Absentee voters must also be notified of any defects in their ballots, such as signature problems, and be given an opportunity to fix them. Numerous states have not provided such opportunities, which has led my organization and others to bring numerous successful lawsuits on this issue in recent years (in states including California, Georgia and New Hampshire). Ballots should not be discarded before voters are given a chance to address any problems and make sure that their votes are counted.

There is not much time left before November. But these simple fixes could mitigate disruptions to our democracy caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and help ensure that every American can participate in November

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