The United States has never cancelled or postponed a presidential election – not after 9/11, not during the two world wars, and not even during the Civil War. Under the shadow of Covid-19, however, Americans may be unable to gather at polling places to cast their ballots on November 3. The only way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to prepare – right now – to allow all citizens to vote by mail in the coming elections. But partisan divisions may be too deep to forestall this horrific threat to American democracy.
Already the public health dangers posed by the novel coronavirus to voters and poll workers have caused nine states and U.S. territories to postpone their primary elections. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, in a letter requesting the state legislature to postpone the primary election scheduled for March 17, noted that since state health officials had advised seniors over age 65 to remain in their homes and avoid public gatherings, holding the election as regularly scheduled would have disenfranchised a fifth of the state population. State provision of postage-paid mail-in ballots to all voters was therefore, he concluded, the only constitutionally permissible alternative.
However, LaRose also observed that it was logistically impossible to hold the rescheduled election any earlier than June 2. Under normal circumstances, the process of sending mail-in ballots to all state voters would begin five months before election day; heroic measures might cut that time in half. However, LaRose emphasized the inherent time requirements of a process that will require gathering and verifying data from all county boards of elections; designing, printing, pre-sorting, and mailing millions of ballot request forms, instructions, and return envelopes; and allowing a tight but reasonable time for voters to submit their requests, receive their ballots, and return their completed ballots to their respective boards of elections.
All of these factors would apply to a national mail-in election. 33 states already allow residents to vote by mail without providing an excuse, and three states – Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – have all-mail elections. But most states would also have to build up their electoral infrastructure and hire many more ballot-counters in order to prevent intolerable delays in a mail-in election at this scale.
Given the inescapable logistical difficulties involved, the government would have to very soon begin preparations for a mass mail-in election in order to have any chance of success in November. The main legislative proposal to that end is currently the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA), sponsored by Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon. The bill would allow the federal government to provide states with the funds and assistance needed to allow states to scale up their vote-by-mail processes to allow every voter to cast a no-excuse-needed absentee ballot, as well as to expand early in-person voting. The bill, in line with cost estimates from nonpartisan sources including the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Brennan Center, estimates that such efforts would require roughly $2 billion.
Most of the features of the NDEBA have been incorporated into the House Democrats’ stimulus proposal. Currently, however, no Republicans have signed on as cosponsors of the NDEBA and the Senate Republican stimulus proposal includes only $140 million for states to prepare for the elections.
Few Republican legislators have articulated their objections to the Democratic proposals. Some are skeptical that Covid-19 will still pose a significant public health threat by November. But if the novel coronavirus follows the pattern of past pandemics and undergoes a fall resurgence, by then it will be too late to prevent electoral disaster.
Some Republicans are concerned that the NDEBA would take election authority away from the states. Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, objected that imposing additional constraints on states from the federal government is the opposite of what we should be doing now.” However, Davis also supported additional funding for the Electoral Assistance Commission to “ensure that states are prepared to deal with COVID-19 and keep their elections running smoothly and securely,” including covering costs of mail-in votes, extending no-excuse provisions for absentee voting, and reimbursing for poll worker recruitment and training.
Although few Republicans are likely to speculate about this publicly, many worry that mail-in elections would increase voter turnout, which would be bad for the GOP. A study commissioned by Washington Monthly writers Gilad Edelman and Paul Glastris found that Colorado’s move to “vote at home” did indeed increase turnout, particularly among low-turnout young voters who vote disproportionately Democratic. But the study also found that the biggest boost came from low-frequency, less partisan voters who were open to non-extreme candidates from both parties.
Ensuring that every citizen’s vote can be counted during a pandemic shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Hopefully legislators from both parties will perceive their shared interest in preventing the postponement or cancellation of November’s election and take action now to fend off Covid-19’s threat to our democracy.