How Congress must aid states to ensure safe and secure elections

How Congress must aid states to ensure safe and secure elections
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It is inevitable that there will be great demand for alternatives to voting in person this November. Even if the coronavirus crisis abates in the coming months, many Americans will still cast their decisions by absentee ballot or early voting. The vast majority of states and local governments simply do not hold the resources to be ready for this rush. That is why Congress needs to step up right away to assist states and local governments with federal funds to run these critical elections that ensures democracy.

Officials across the political spectrum have been speaking out about the challenges they face to holding safe and secure elections as the country grapples with this pandemic. While running elections is the responsibility of states, as mandated by the Constitution, they need the resources and support that only the federal government can provide in this time of need. The good news is that the stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump included $400 million to assist states with elections.

This funding was an important down payment, but it is only a fraction of what is needed to ensure safe and secure elections. A majority of voters say they are afraid to vote in person due to the coronavirus. States must prepare now to meet this demand for alternatives to voting in person so Americans have confidence that they can safely be heard, or risk much lower turnout numbers as well as widespread mistrust of the results.

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There are a variety of options that each state must explore. Every state in the union has some form of absentee voting, and many states require no excuse to do so. While it is important to remember that absentee ballots and early voting are valuable tools, they are still not a total substitute for voting in person, at least not at the moment. The bottom line is that this November, polls have to also be safe and accessible on Election Day.

The Wisconsin primary showed the chaos that could take hold across the country if Congress fails to act promptly. In Milwaukee, the biggest city in the state, only five of 180 polling locations were open, as the demand for absentee ballots greatly spiked. As the New York Times noted, Wisconsin voters had a choice between their health and their civic duty. The basic principle is that Americans should never have to make that choice.

As the National Association of Secretaries of State made clear in its letter to Congress, the inevitable demand for alternative ways of voting means states must address the current “global supply chain issues for high speed scanners and mail processing equipment” and scarce “necessary cleaning products and personal protective equipment.” States will need assistance with paying for printing, postage, envelopes, and data entry. Some states have already begun to explore other options such as drive up voting, like New Hampshire Governor John Sununu has announced for his state.

Another challenge that states and local governments face is finding and training people to staff polling locations, positions often filled by retirees who are now among those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. We have no idea whether the coronavirus will fade during the summer, and many experts believe there is a chance that it will return in the fall. Needless to say, the time for us to prepare for safe and secure elections is now.

At any time of national crisis, it is critical that the federal government do all it can to help states ensure that our elections proceed smoothly and that all eligible citizens have a real opportunity to cast their ballots. The risk extends beyond elections that are chaotic, unsafe, and mismanaged. Elections that permanently destroy the trust that Americans have in the legitimacy of their institutions, not to mention the legitimacy of results, are just as dangerous. Confidence in our political system is its bedrock. Our experiment in representative government crumbles without it.

Zachary Wamp is a former member of Congress who chairs the Reformers Caucus for Issue One, where Meredith McGehee is the executive director.