With the general election more than seven months away, the potential impact of covid-19 on voter turnout remains largely hypothetical. But in what could prove a parallel to the prescient (and mostly unheeded) warnings by top medical officials about U.S. unpreparedness last month, a wave of influential voices are now pressing for immediate action to curb the virus’s influence this November.
In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on Monday, the president and vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU’s progressive policy institute—Michael Waldman and Wendy Weiser, respectively—put forth several suggestions for securing the vote; among them, a universal option of voting by mail.
“Our election system is utterly unready to deal with a pandemic,” the pair wrote, echoing the fears of at least two Democratic senators now backing a bill to improve access to the ballot box. Last week, Senator Ron Wyden introduced legislation aimed at ensuring all Americans, and not just military members, could vote using absentee ballots before November 3. “No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” Wyden said.
Waldman and Weiser write that potentially millions of voters may be unable, or simply unwilling, to vote in person this year, and that a vote-by-mail option is the only way to “ensure that everyone can vote safely and securely in November.”
“We’ve never had to run an election beset by a public health emergency of this kind. But we’ve had to cast ballots amid crisis and disruption before,” they said, reflecting on Abraham Lincoln’s words during an 1864 speech before “spectators of both sexes” huddled on the White House lawn. At the height of America’s bloodiest conflict and amid a wave of unenthusiasm for his own re-election, he proclaimed, “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
“With the same spirit,” said Waldman and Weiser, “we can make sure this devastating pandemic does not undermine our democracy.”
For the millions of voters who will be unable or unwilling to go to a polling place this year, there needs to be a universal option of voting by mail. In states where election officials do not already have the authority to provide this option, this will require action by state legislatures or Congress or emergency orders by state executives. Voters should be given the chance to ask for mail-in ballots in myriad ways — on the phone, online, by letter. Officials should print enough ballots so that every possible voter could get one.
Security for mail-in ballots is critical, too. Secure drop boxes could be installed at government offices or other locations to avoid tampering and bolster confidence. Deadlines should be extended so that all mail-in ballots are counted. While mail voting should be available to all, in-person balloting is still the most accessible and secure option for many Americans. For those in many Native American communities, it is the only one. We should do what we can to retain the in-person option.
The Wyden bill—known as the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act—would effectively accomplish this goal by mandating that all election authorities offer voters the option of mailing in their ballets or dropping off hand-marked paper ballots. It would go into effect in the event that 25 percent of states declare an emergency due to the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus currently wreaking havoc around the globe. The mandate would remain in place for 180 days after the emergencies are lifted.
The bill was formally introduced on Friday. By that time, Wyden was joined by Senator Amy Klobuchar, ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, which has oversight jurisdiction over federal elections. In addition to the “no excuse” absentee option, it now includes additional measures aimed at expanding early in-person voting.
“Americans are facing unprecedented disruptions to their daily lives and we need to make sure that in the midst of this pandemic, Americans don’t also lose their ability to vote,” said Klobuchar in a statement.
New research reported by Gizmodo on Monday shows that people without symptoms “can not only spread the infection but are actually fueling its pandemic spread across the globe.” Health care workers are among those at high risk for infection, with workers in at least five states testing positive thus far.
Even prominent supporters of President Trump, who only weeks ago blew off the outbreak as a “myth” and portrayed preemptive action as “irresponsible,” have dramatically changed their tune (though not fast enough to be absolved for spreading medical illiteracy). It remains to be seen whether this same chorus will now join the growing call to expand voting capabilities—or instead simply wager that the virus won’t play an outsized role in electing the next U.S. president.