The daunting prospect of holding a general election for over 130 million voters during the pandemic across the country is rushing toward us. But for once there are reasons to be optimistic after the first major round of primary elections featuring expanded mail voting options has generated plenty of success that states can build on before November.
Several states that held recent primary elections had expanded absentee voting and other options to make ballots more accessible and much safer for eligible voters. While it is easy to overlook, this is a success that states must learn from. Leaders who want to uphold the sanctity of Election Day saw that, with the spread of the coronavirus, providing eligible voters with the ability to vote safely required several temporary reforms. Importantly, such reforms came from leaders of both parties. As coronavirus does not differentiate between Republicans and Democrats, and both parties have come together to defend our elections against the disease.
Before the pandemic, some of our fellow Republicans resisted reforms like expanded early and absentee voting, and many still do. But with the worst public health crisis in a century, many Republicans have correctly realized that an emergency situation calls for the emergency response. Now is the time to break the glass. Utah, a reliably Republican state, has actually run its elections almost exclusively by mail for years. In the primary elections, ruby red Montana and South Carolina allowed voters an option of casting their ballots by mail so they can maintain social distancing.
Montana had a smashing success with its first all mail voting primary, and it bore another important lesson for those who still oppose mail voting on partisan grounds. Voter turnout for the Big Sky State surpassed all former records for a primary election. The kicker is the conservative Republicans celebrated a series of wins from election night, placing to rest any notion that mail voting helps only moderate or liberal candidates.
The story was the same in South Carolina. Senator Lindsey Graham faces what could be his toughest election yet, so rallying voter support with the Republican primary was a great way for him to pick up momentum ahead of the general election. In the expanded absentee voting system that the Palmetto State used, he received around 70 percent more votes than he received in any past Republican primary in South Carolina.
Republicans can disagree about whether expanded mail voting is the best policy when things will return to normal. However, some Americans, such as the men and women of our military, need absentee voting as they have for generations. But at least for now, Republicans should rest assured that adjusting our election procedures to give voters more choices during this pandemic will not hand Democrats an unfair advantage. In fact, some key Republican demographics such as rural voters and older voters appear to be taking extra advantage of these new options this year.
The general election is only a few months away, so it is important to build on the success of these primary elections. Both parties must continue to come together to protect the system from the coronavirus. Neither party stands to lose and voters stand to gain from the expanded voting options. Republicans do not have to be scared of increased voter turnout because it has been shown to assist Republicans and Democrats in equal measure. In this country, having elections is what we do. Americans have never run away from a challenge before. Now is not the time to start.
Ileana Lehtinen is a former Republican member of Congress from Florida. Trey Grayson is a former Republican secretary of state for Kentucky. They serve as chairs for the nonpartisan organization Secure Elections Project.