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The 2020 primary election schedule is being upended by the coronavirus outbreak, and that should ring alarm bells for the November 3 general election that will decide not just the presidency but control of Congress and statehouses across the country. Steps must be taken now—major steps—to ensure not only that the November elections go ahead as planned, but also that they aim for the highest possible turnout by guaranteeing all Americans safe and secure procedures for casting their ballots.
“No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk,” says Senator Ron Wyden, who has proposed ambitious legislation that would require states and localities to develop and administer plans to operate elections in the face of “the very real threat looming this November.”
How serious is that threat? “This pandemic presents unique, novel challenges to election administrators,” says Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “It is very different from any of the election emergencies we have seen in recent years. The nation has not prepared for it.” And that’s a big problem. “Our elections will not be perceived as fair if steps are not taken to assure that people have options for voting, no matter what happens. This is an emergency we can address, but we don’t have that much time.”
The sense of urgency has as much to do with the uncertainty about when the virus will be contained as it does with the virus itself.
Wyden, Weiser, and others who are raising the alarm hope the desperate news of the moment—reports of new cases and deaths, closures, and stock market plunges—will be a distant memory in November. But uncertainty about whether the crisis could linger or perhaps ease in the summer and then return with a vengeance in the fall has experts worried. Dennis Carroll, a former director of the US Agency for International Development’s Global Health Security and Development Unit, says, “What we don’t know about this virus is epic.”
The Covid-19 outbreak has already created a measure of chaos in this Democratic primary season, as several states have postponed voting. Though rescheduling elections should always be a last resort, primary calendars are at least somewhat flexible. “Postponement of the general election is not an option,” says Weiser.
But what happens if the approach to the November election is as chaotic as the approach to the primaries? Instead of allowing fear and uncertainty to frame our choices, perhaps creating a circumstance where turnout could be dramatically depressed, “we have to move as quickly as possible to make the resources available for excuse-free absentee voting and mail voting,” says Representative Jamie Raskin. “We can maximize everybody’s ability to vote in a way that reduces the medical risk and the psychological anxiety.”
Working with Wyden and House Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Suzan DelBene, Raskin is cosponsoring the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020—legislation that those representatives say “would require states and localities to formulate and publish their plans within 30 days. It would also require states to offer postage prepaid self-sealing envelopes to voters who vote absentee in order to reduce the risk associated with infection at post offices and provide $500 million in grants to states to cover the costs of postage and high-speed scanners necessary to process large numbers of absentee ballots.”
Voting by mail isn’t a new idea. Oregon and Washington have long histories of conducting all-mail elections, which generally see higher turnouts and smoother counts. Dozens of other states have made strides in expanding the practice in certain elections. Yet most voters still cast ballots in person. The coronavirus outbreak, no matter its trajectory, makes a move to voting by mail wise for reasons of public health and democracy. It’s not the only fix that’s needed—easing constraints on voter registration and access to absentee ballots, expanding early voting, and developing smart models for maintaining at least some in-person voting also make sense—and consideration has to be given to the need to protect clerks, mail handlers, and letter carriers, which could put new pressures on the Postal Service. But Alexandra Chandler of the group Protect Democracy is right when she says officials should look to expanded mail voting as “a first step toward protecting our elections against crises or disturbances.”
That first step must be taken now. As Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, says, “We should be making it easier to vote by mail as quickly as possible because the closer we get to the election, the less time we will have to avoid a nightmare scenario.”
The argument for expanding options for mail voting is not theoretical. America got a real-time test of its utility in early March, as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination narrowed to former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on a series of Super and lesser Tuesdays. In Washington state, where a nursing home was an early coronavirus hot spot, Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation on February 29. The March 10 primary election arrived at a moment when businesses were urging employees to stay home and initial school closures were being announced. Yet The Seattle Times reported, “Despite a nearly unprecedented public health crisis in Western Washington that kept both septuagenarian candidates from campaigning here leading up to the primary, turnout appeared on pace to set a new state record for a presidential primary, according to Secretary of State Kim Wyman.”
Things have not gone as smoothly in states where in-person voting on Election Day remains common. Louisiana postponed its primary from April 4 to June 20, Georgia moved its election from March 24 to May 19, and Ohio announced on the eve of its March 17 primary that voting would be “delayed.”
In Maricopa, Arizona’s most-populous county, nursing homes and schools signaled that they could no longer serve as polling places for the March 17 primary. After county supervisors closed 78 polling places, the county recorder, Adrian Fontes, announced that he would order ballots mailed to all voters who normally cast them at the polls. It wasn’t a radical notion, as voting by mail is common in Arizona. Unfortunately, the state’s Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, objected and got a local judge to block the move. Brnovich accused Fontes of “creating chaos in our elections during an already difficult time.”
Wrong. Fontes was doing the right thing by attempting to expand the options for voting in a regularly scheduled election taking place during a public health crisis. And he was seeking to ensure that the election would be more than just an exercise in bureaucratic responsibility—that the county would take the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible turnout.
Fontes didn’t let up. He appeared on radio and television and all over social media, urging voters to cast absentee ballots and “making sure that every Maricopa County voter has plenty of opportunity to vote and plenty of options to make that happen,” he says.
Congress can help officials like Fontes by encouraging all states to develop plans for maintaining democracy in times of crisis, extending vote-by-mail strategies, and funding them. As the ACLU’s Ho says, “We really need to make advance plans now for the possibility that we will have to hold the 2020 election with more voting by mail than at any time in American history.”