States should plan now for November voting options

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Millions of Americans are self-isolating at home, the Olympics are called off, this summer’s political conventions may be too, but even more than the severe economic dislocation, the greatest coronavirus threat could be the November elections.

The national elections aren’t going to be called off despite some Democrats’ total distrust of President Trump and Attorney General William Barr. But if the pandemic fears persist or revives in the fall — the NIH’s Anthony Fauci fears that “we really need to be prepared for another cycle” — voters may stay away, worried about the health hazards of long lines and congested voting sites.

Now is the time to prepare for that. It’s more critical than ever to expand and ease the exercise of the franchise.

The massive congressional stimulus bill gives $400 million to the states to facilitate voting, though it’s left to individual states what to do. This is “a step in the right direction,” declared Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon, who are pushing a massive election reform bill, but it isn’t nearly sufficient: “The American people cannot be forced to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote.”

The best approach would be incentives for voting by mail, perhaps mandates to provide that option. This has worked very well in the handful of states that have opted for mail voting.

But an impediment will be Republicans who — as they do with all efforts to improve voting participation — will raise their favorite bogeyman: fraud. The Trump administration created a commission, headed by Vice President Pence and the right-wing former Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, to expose all this voting fraud. It disbanded when it couldn’t really find any.

Actually, the phony cries of fraud are part of the effort by some conservatives at voter suppression of minorities and young voters, who they see as reliable Democrats. When controlling the state voting mechanisms, they do this by limiting early voting and setting phony voting identification requirements: In Texas a permit to carry a concealed weapon was ok, a student ID card was not. Guess why?

North Carolina has been the epicenter of these efforts. Yet an extensive survey after the 2016 election by the state election board found only 508 fraudulent votes out of almost 4.8 million cast.

Unlike 2016, however, the Tar Heel state now has a Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, and his party is a majority on the election board. They are committed to making it easier to vote. One early example: The state soon will start online voting registration. In the fall more voting sites will be offered.

State law now allows no-fault absentee voting. The most dramatic upgrade, however, would be voting by mail, particularly if the COVID-19 threat lingers.

But that would require a change in the law. Republicans still control the legislature, and coronavirus or not, they won’t permit that. You can hear them now: fraud, fraud, fraud.

Sen. Wyden, in an interview — of course by email these days — argues it’s essential in the current crisis that more states turn to mail voting as an option. Oregon, Washington and Colorado have done so successfully for some time, and Utah and Hawaii are joining them.

He belittles the cries of fraud: “Oregon has been voting by mail for more than two decades and there has been no evidence whatsoever of significant fraud.” That’s in contrast, he adds, with electronic voting machines, “many of which offer no way at all to verify whether voters are being recorded correctly.”

Concerns have been raised by some minorities and people with disabilities that mail voting could cause comparative complications for them. Wyden says special efforts and technology can alleviate those concerns.

The benefits of mail voting are enormous, Wyden says: “It is incredibly popular (with voters), it saves states and counties money and is more convenient.”

No one knows when this pandemic will reach an apex, or whether it might retreat in the warm weather and come back in the fall. It should be incumbent, however, for all public officials to plan for that possibility.

There is nothing more precious in our politics than the franchise.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Donald Trump Elections Electronic voting Kris Kobach North Carolina Postal voting Ron Wyden voter fraud commission Voter ID laws Voter suppression Voting William Barr

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