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Can democracy by mail save 2020?

Can democracy by mail save 2020?
© The Hill Illustration

I love to vote. I believe deeply in the process. It is an act that, to me and millions of my fellow citizens, means far more than just a sticker. For me this began as a child, when I observed my parents taking part in the vital ritual of casting a ballot, an experience that instilled in me the idea that everyone needs to vote to preserve our democracy in the United States.

With the coronavirus and urgent necessity of social distancing, we have already seen primary elections delayed in Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Legislators, party leaders, and election lawyers have also had discussions about the fate of the national conventions scheduled for this summer. Candidates up and down the ballots must look for fresh ways to campaign without rallies and town halls, while still getting their message to millions of Americans who are under quarantine. We even have heard concerns that our general election this fall might need to be postponed.

Let me be clear, I still want my sticker, but I also want all eligible voters to have access to their right to vote under the most difficult conditions in a century. It is time for us to begin an honest and expedient conversation about how we administer elections in this dangerous and extraordinary age. The United States held an election during the Civil War and during both World Wars. But can we come together to solve the unique voting problems presented by the pandemic sweeping all across the country?

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It will be challenging without a single centralized apparatus when each state needs to define the specific means, access, and procedures for its voters. While federal statute specifies the day of our general election and requires that, every four years, electors must convene in their respective state capitals to cast their votes for our president and vice president, the safety and accessibility of polling places is left to every state to decide.

Polling places appear to be a hazard to our public health at this point. But consider the hazards of asking citizens not to vote in a time of crisis. What can we do? One answer may be to expand the use of safe and secure mail voting programs. We have seen high participation rates in such programs. It is critical that legislators pass laws to create mail voting systems where they do not already exist and offer broader absentee voting procedures.

Legislators must also adopt criteria to protect the process from fraud or interference by ensuring that ballots are accepted and counted based on postmarks. They should enact measures to guarantee that all ballots are properly completed, handled securely, and accurately counted. Several states already allow no excuse absentee balloting. The bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Amy Klobuchar seeks to address these same issues and increase the ability of every voter across the country to participate in elections even when they remain isolated or quarantined.

Indeed, a national absentee voting system already exists, and some states have successful mail voting programs. We should not have to reinvent the wheel or throw out any of our rights and safeguards. But time is short. The stimulus package now passed by Congress includes $400 million to help states safely conduct the 2020 election and to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus, domestically or internationally.” Regardless, states do not have any specific details on how that will be implemented.

In less than six months, early voting will begin in more than 9,000 districts across the country, each with its own rules and procedures. Clarity will be key, education will be essential, and bipartisan support will be mandatory.

Amy Dacey is executive director for the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics at the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington and is the former chief executive officer for the Democratic National Committee.