The onset of COVID-19 is set to disrupt every aspect of life, and there’s a good chance that will also include how we vote.
Though more people vote by mail with each election cycle, 75 percent of voters still go to their local polling center and typically cast their ballots on some sort of touchscreen or other device. This tradition of gathering in a crowded space and touching surfaces that hundreds of other humans have handled seems like an ideal way to transmit a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease that the Centers for Disease Control says can contaminate surfaces for extended periods of time.
Compounding the problem, many volunteer poll workers are older and therefore more vulnerable to the worst outcomes of the coronavirus. “Older persons are high-risk for complications and death,” said Robert L. Murphy, the executive director of the Center for Global Health at Northwestern University. “In hot zones or high-risk areas, older persons shouldn’t be working in public places like a polling station.”
Dozens of states and other jurisdictions (like Guam and Washington, D.C.) have yet to hold primary elections, and yet, it seems reckless to hold these elections as normal. Last week, polling stations had to be relocated from nursing homes suddenly at risk of a deadly outbreak. Wyoming has said that it will cancel in-person voting for its April 4 election and is creating a pick-up and drop-off system for ballots. Four states—Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Ohio—have already announced they would delay voting, with Ohio making the call just hours before Tuesday's election was scheduled to be held.
But there’s still no guarantee this coronavirus will be resolved before the general election in November. One available solution is to adopt a system that vote reformers have been pushing for years: Instead of forcing voters to gather in often overcrowded public spaces, let them cast ballots by mail, and eliminate the need for in-person voting altogether.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, which in 1998 became the first state to switch exclusively to mail-in voting, has been a longtime supporter of voting by mail. Last week Wyden released a bill that would require states to create a system allowing voters to cast ballots by mail or by dropping them off somewhere if 25 percent of states declared a state of emergency (a threshold that has already been reached). The bill also allocates $500 million in funding to help the states with this transition.
“What I want to do is to make sure that Americans can exercise their constitutional rights without putting their health at risk,” Wyden said in an interview. “Voting by mail is a proven, safe way to vote.”
Advocates of mail-in voting have been describing its benefits for years. Mailing in your ballot means you don't have to figure out which polling station to go to, wait in line (potentially for hours), and be surprised at the voting machine by a bevy of ballot measures and local elections you know nothing about. Voting by mail allows people with mobility issues or who are prevented from going to the polls because they have work, childcare, or other responsibilities. Data from 2018 showed that three states that ran all-mail elections—Washington, Oregon and Colorado—had higher turnout of registered voters than other states, and mail-in voting saves money if states no longer have to maintain and staff so many polling places. Mail-in ballots are less vulnerable to cyberattacks than electronic voting machines, some of which have been found to be connected to the internet. Some electronic voting machines don’t always create a back-up paper ballot, which can make accurate recounts nearly impossible. Mailed ballots, on the other hand, are easily scanned and or can be hand-counted.
However, despite these advantages, vote-by-mail is routinely opposed by Republicans who claim, without evidence, that it dramatically increases voter fraud. Conservative pundits have claimed absentee voters are likely to be manipulated by Democratic groups into voting blue, and in 2018 Donald Trump insinuated that the slow counting of mailed ballots in Florida was tantamount to a rigged election.
There have been instances of fraud involving mail-in ballots, most famously in 2018 when North Carolina Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris hired a political operative who allegedly illegally tampered with Democratic absentee ballots. Absentee ballot fraud is a felony and though it occurs, the numbers are minuscule. In 2019 Oregon convicted 10 people of defrauding its mail-only system during the 2016 election—out of 2,051,448 votes cast.
Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling said that mail-in ballot fraud is so rare because it’s both difficult to do and also very high risk and low reward. “If you want to hack an election about the most idiotic way to do it would be to do it vote by vote, felony by felony,” said Keisling. “It’s like counterfeiting pennies. If you’re going to risk doing the time, you’re going to counterfeit fifties or hundreds.”
Democrats do not uniformly support voting by mail—New York State's infamously behind-the-times election system has only given out absentee ballots on an extremely limited basis—but advocates for vote-by-mail are often frustrated by how partisan the issue often is.
“We have to get to the place where election policy is about who votes and not who wins,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Vote at Home, which advocates for election security and the use of mail-in ballots. “Right now, pretty much everything is driven by outcomes. How will this affect me? How will this affect my party?"
Even if Congress recognized that the coronavirus crisis necessitated sudden changes to the way the country votes, it couldn't take unilateral action. In the U.S. there are some 10,000 different voting districts governed by a varied patchwork of rules and regulations, and many districts are already overburdened and underfunded (which is why the $500 million that Wyden's bill would provide is important).
The good news is that 34 states and Washington, D.C., all allow some form of mail-in voting. Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, and Washington conduct elections exclusively by mail and California is close to transitioning to such a system. All states collect absentee ballots of some kind, so the real issue is whether there is enough time and money for these systems to scale up and in some cases fundamentally transform. Supporters of vote-by-mail said these formidable challenges can and must be quickly overcome, especially now.
“This is a time of crisis,” said Alexandra Chandler, a policy advocate with the nonprofit Protect Democracy. “Part of the national response should be a commensurate response to protect our democracy and ensure that people have the access to vote. There are heroic election administrators and officials working at the state and local level. So, I think it can be done but the sooner that there is action, the better the prospects will be.”
Trump and the rest of the Republican Party would need to sideline partisanship, recognize the coronavirus’ dangerous threat to our democracy and work with Democrats in order to enact national vote-by-mail provisions that would safeguard both citizens and elections. Wyden said he is hopeful that common sense will prevail.
“At some point, even those who may have looked at them (mail-in ballots) in the past in a partisan way are going to have to say, ‘How else are you going to conveniently and effectively empower people to vote in the middle of a public health crisis?’”
Chris Iovenko is a Los Angeles–based writer whose work has appeared in such places as Slate, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, the New York Times, The American Prospect, The Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic.