So far, COVID-19 has disrupted presidential campaigns and primary election schedules. But federal, state, and local officials should not permit the pandemic to disrupt voting itself. Given how much we have all learned to live at a safe distance, there is no excuse for government not to move toward instituting policies and funding to provide every voter with the option to cast a ballot by mail.
In-person voting is preferred by many and can remain an option. But no one should have to risk contracting a potentially fatal infection when exercising a constitutional right — like those voters forced to stand in long lines and in crowded polling places during Wisconsin’s April 7 primary. That debacle arose from toxic partisanship and eleventh-hour court rulings, culminating in an avalanche of absentee ballot applications that were never fulfilled. Voters, candidates, and American democracy itself deserve better.
While states are addressing the logistics of providing more voting-by-mail options for upcoming local municipal elections and primaries in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the presidential election has sparked debate over moving to a universal system of voting by mail. That seems a logical solution at least during this crisis, but this is a battle fought on partisan lines, with Republicans pushing for in-person voting and resisting the move to mail voting. A Democratic political group filed a lawsuit last week that would make it easier to vote by mail in Pennsylvania.
The term voting by mail covers more than one category of voting. Every state offers absentee ballots; some states require voters to provide an excuse for his or her absence from the physical polling place. Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not. Both of these states also offer registered voters the options to request mail-in ballots.
Only Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah offer “all-mail” voting; 27 other states allow all-mail voting only for certain local elections, such as school board contests. (New Jersey’s municipal elections in May will be all-mail.)
All-mail voting, which provides mail-in ballots to all voters, can increase election expenses, such as printing, mailing and other costs. Montgomery County, for example, expects to spend $50,000 on scanning equipment for mail-in ballots. The first federal stimulus package includes $400 million to help states defray election costs – though that falls far short of the $2 billion that the Brennan Center says is needed.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy are publicly encouraging voters to apply to vote by mail for their state’s respective June 2 and July 7 primaries. Voters must request mail-in ballots by May 26 in Pennsylvania (votespa.com) and June 30 in New Jersey (https://www.state.nj.us/state/elections/vote-by-mail.shtml).
While it may be unwieldy to fully shift to all-mail voting in states that also have postponed primaries, vote-by-mail ought to be readily available — and not only for seniors or for those who can provide a justification or an “excuse,” like those required in a number of states. Surely these impediments can be waived or removed altogether nationwide before Election Day on Nov. 3.
Even in a normal election year, the battle around mail-in voting typically involves critics (usually Republican) who claim the system automatically advantages Democrats and is vulnerable to fraud. Neither of which is true. Other critics insist voting by mail is too convenient — as if voting were constitutionally required to be arduous. In fact, voting by mail is arguably more labor-intensive. Except in all-mail voting states, even registered voters who don’t already vote by mail must request, fill out online, or complete in writing and return an application, and later, fill out and mail in their ballots.
A robust democracy depends on participation by voters on election days. Discouraging or impeding that participation – whether through Russian interference in the 2016 election, or efforts to require IDs or otherwise disenfranchise certain groups from voting – weakens our democracy. The prospect of voters avoiding polling places due to fear of infection could further weaken it. More states should allow no-excuse absentee ballots and encourage voters to request mail-in ballots. And voters must play their part and request ballots — and use them to vote.