The COVID-19 pandemic is altering many dimensions of our national life: economic, social, political. But it cannot be allowed to infect the health of our democracy or weaken the ability of every American to cast a ballot in November.
Fortunately, there is still enough time — barely — to prepare for the fall elections. Now that Congress has completed an economic recovery package, it should turn immediately to the challenge of maximizing political participation in the middle of a national crisis.
A good place to start is legislation introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden and Amy Klobuchar, which would guarantee the right of every American to vote by mail and help states cover the costs of that change. “Without federal action, Americans might have to choose between casting a ballot and protecting their health,” the two Democrats write in the Washington Post. “That’s wrong, and we must take swift action to address the problem.”
The recovery package contains a small down payment — $400 million — to help the states, but that’s not nearly enough. And the legislation fails to mandate a national mail-in process — a critical mistake. The cost of inaction is graphically clear. Ohio’s primary was postponed at the last minute by Gov. Mike DeWine. In other states that did vote, conditions were often confused and chaotic.
Many states have since moved their primaries to later dates, but postponing the November election is not an option. The date is set by federal law, but more importantly, any disruption in the schedule would send signals of panic and incompetence at a moment when the country needs exactly the opposite: steadiness and stability.
“We have held elections in all sorts of crises, in the midst of hurricanes and civil war,” Wendy Weiser, an election expert at the Brennan Center for Justice told The Christian Science Monitor. “We just need to make it fair — and get on top of it now.”
The urgency is particularly acute because Donald Trump will be on the ballot, a man who has repeatedly complained, without any evidence, about rigged elections and fraudulent voters, while soliciting the help of foreign leaders to help him win.
“We need to have these kinds of conversations about the election honestly, rationally and now,” historian Jon Meacham wrote in the New York Times. “The sooner the better, for chaos could lead to a nightmare scenario: the possibility that President Trump might take advantage of the unfolding health crisis to delay the November election.”
In five states, almost all voters already mail their ballots; 33 states plus the District of Columbia offer the option. About 23% of all Americans voted by post in 2016, while fraud was minimal. Wyden and Klobuchar called the postal process “time-tested” and explained, “Our legislation will guarantee every voter a secure mail-in paper ballot and help states cover the cost of printing, self-sealing envelopes, ballot tracking and postage.”
States are already being innovative. A good example is Rhode Island, where Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea will automatically send applications for mail-in ballots to the state’s 788,000 voters in time for an April 28 primary. “It’s a good time to test these systems in case we are still in this situation later on in the fall,” she told the Times.
The difficulties of switching to a mail-in system should not be minimized. “You’ve got to train thousands of people,” Judd Choate, the director of elections in Colorado, where the process is popular, told the Post. “You’ve got to completely change how people are doing this. And in some states, it’s going to require a statutory change.”
That means also adapting the in-person voting system to the realities of a pandemic election. Expanding early voting, so that folks can escape the crowds on Election Day, is a no-brainer. So is recruiting young people to serve as monitors, replacing senior citizens, who are more vulnerable to the virus.
And again, local innovation is flourishing. One clever monitor in Illinois last week tied ribbons every six feet on a long rope so that waiting voters could keep their proper distance. Election officials in Bristol, Virginia, are adapting a drive-in window at an old utility company to accept ballots.
This can be done. Democracy should not be crippled by this virus. As Choate, the Colorado official, put it: “If the one good outcome of this terrible event in our lives is that we can make voting easier for people around the country, then at least we’ve done one good thing.”
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University and is a syndicated columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.