The United States has faced a civil war, two world wars, stock market crashes and major recessions, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters—and never before has a presidential election been delayed or canceled. The legitimacy of our democratic republic depends on the regular continuance of our elections, even in times of turmoil. The coronavirus pandemic must not become a reason to end our proud streak.
Seven states and Puerto Rico have already postponed primary elections due to COVID-19 concerns, but that cannot be an option come November 3. The state governments, with assistance from the federal government, must act now to ensure that everyone, and especially the elderly and those with underlying health issues, are provided a way to exercise their constitutional right to vote without needlessly risking their health and safety.
Voting by mail may be a public health necessity in 2020, and while Republicans have generally resisted vote-by-mail proposals in the past, they ought to rethink their opposition now. Consider some of the red states hardest hit by COVID-19, such as Florida and Louisiana. Should voters in those states not have safe access to voting, they will be less likely to vote. Pandemics are by no means partisan, but COVID-19 disproportionately affects older people, a cohort statistically more likely to vote Republican.
Fortunately, there is a simple fix available. Five states—Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah, and Washington—currently conduct their elections entirely by mail, and another 29 allow “no excuse-absentee” voting. In those states, voters can request a ballot be mailed to them, no questions asked. (In six of those states, voters can request to vote absentee permanently and are automatically mailed ballots each election. In the other 23 states, voters must request ballots each election.) Those ballots are then filled out by the voter and are either returned by mail or delivered to a secure ballot-collection location.
Amid our shared national emergency, “no-excuse absentee” voting could easily be extended in the remaining 16 states that require an excuse to vote absentee. Doing so would instantly give every American the ability to vote at home and protect countless poll workers from unnecessary exposure. The states that currently require an excuse to vote absentee are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, and West Virginia. In the following states, that requirement is waived only for voters older than a specified threshold age, which is typically 60 or 65: Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina.
Without taking this basic measure, millions of voters in those 16 states risk disenfranchisement.
Hardcore vote-by-mail enthusiasts, who would like to see the states automatically mail all residents postage-paid ballots, probably won’t accept universal no-excuse absentee voting as a broad enough reform. However, it is a doable one, capable of being enacted on a fast timetable. Since each state administers its own elections, the governors and secretaries of state, working in coordination with their legislatures, can easily make this change.
Already there are glimmers of bipartisan consensus at the gubernatorial level that coronavirus avoidance is a valid excuse for voting absentee, at least temporarily.
West Virginia’s Republican governor Jim Justice has postponed his state’s primary and state officials have said they would accept coronavirus avoidance as an excuse to vote absentee. Connecticut governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, is considering a similar measure. But given that the pandemic—and the fact that millions of Americans are being given orders to stay at home—should voters even have to explain why they would like to vote from home? Surely that is an unnecessary hurdle during a national emergency.
Ohio’s primary was abruptly canceled, leaving lawmakers scrambling to reschedule the contest and provide voters a safe way to vote. Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose is appealing to the legislature to pass a law that would allow him to mail postage-paid ballots to all voters ahead of the in-person voting that has been rescheduled for June 2. But come November, officials won’t get any do-overs. Just try to imagine leaders in a battleground state saying they need more time to print ballots and put them in the hands of voters.
Of course, this isn’t going to be free. All vote-by-mail options cost money: Efficient systems require, at a minimum, address verification, ballot tracking, ballot validation, and ways for voters to quickly correct any errors. Any headlong push to expand voting by mail without sufficient funding in place for all those functions is a recipe for an election disaster.
That money would have to come from the federal government. To that end, Democratic senators Ron Wyden and Amy Klobuchar are introducing legislation that would permit no-excuse absentee voting by mail nationwide. It would also expand early in-person voting and allow voters who did not receive an absentee ballot to use the printable ballot currently provided to the military and overseas voters.
The Klobuchar-Wyden bill calls for $3 million in federal assistance to help the states. Separately, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s version of the coronavirus stimulus contained $140 million in “grants to states in response to the coronavirus for the 2020 election cycle.” Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi countered by asking for $4 billion to be allocated to the Election Assistance Commission. At the time of publication, there was no final stimulus number available, as no deal has yet been reached. But, vote-by-mail advocates from the Brennan Center for Justice say a robust, nationwide vote-by-mail plan will cost $2 billion. All of which is to say that no one knows how much any of this should cost, and it all really depends on what the states want to do.
The Klobuchar-Wyden bill bill has not yet attracted any Republican support, in part because many conservatives are reluctant to mandate federal action and in part because they are sensitive to widely documented concerns about voter fraud, which is easier to commit with absentee ballots. Consider this dramatic tweet from libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky):
Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it. https://t.co/NSqodOXsxx
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) March 24, 2020
That’s overblown. Voting by mail is not the “end of our republic,” but rather—if executed with appropriate safeguards—a modest, prudent supplement to our existing voting methods to protect our republic in an national emergency.
No matter what happens, voting will look very different from state to state. It already does as several states have been forced to shift the dates of their primaries in unprecedented fashion. That’s okay. What’s right for California, where two-thirds of the population already votes by mail, is not going to be practical for other states. Some rural areas may be able to continue just fine with in-person voting on Election Day, despite the coronavirus. Big cities may not.
More critical than settling on a dollar amount or passing federal mandates, however, is arriving at a consensus that more vote-by-mail options will be needed for 2020. There should be recognition that fewer people may be willing to work at polling stations, wait in long lines, or touch voting screens this fall. And governors are best equipped to lead the way. If they need extra funding for their states to print, mail, and process ballots they ought to be asking the federal government for assistance—sooner rather than later.
The worst thing officials could do is assume the elections will look the same in 2020 as they did in 2016. Our day-to-day lives have drastically changed and our voting methods should reflect that reality. Our nation’s healthcare and economic crisis must not become a constitutional crisis, too.
Thankfully, our systems are adaptable. People were already voluntarily shifting towards alternative voting methods long before COVID-19 came along. The percentage of people voting on Election Day has been steadily declining over the past decade and, in 2016 alone, two in five ballots were cast by those who voted early, absentee, or by mail. And, in our democracy’s time of need, it makes perfect sense to rely upon our nation’s postal system. The post office is an established constitutional function of the federal government, and it can be used to preserve our republican institutions.
Let’s all adopt the courier’s motto when it comes to exercising our right to vote: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Like the mail—and with the help of the mail—our elections must go on.