How to protect the right to vote

How to protect the right to vote
© Greg Nash

When the books and blue ribbon reports are written on the response by the United States to the global pandemic of 2020, one fact will stand out. Governments at every level were unprepared and playing catch up as the coronavirus made its voracious march across the country. Nowhere was this clearer than Wisconsin, where the state legislature and the Supreme Court refused to delay a scheduled primary election last month after the coronavirus swept in, forcing thousands of citizens to crowd a few open polling places and risk their lives to exercise the right to vote. Wisconsin health officials confirmed that dozens of people who voted in person or worked at polling places have since tested positive for the coronavirus.

A tragedy of far greater proportions awaits if officials do not quickly take proactive steps to avoid such a situation this fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director warned that a second wave of infections, even more dire than the current one, is likely to hit later this year with the start of flu season. Absent some common sense preparations, the lives of thousands of Americans could be at risk in the upcoming election. Worse yet, some people may argue that the election should be delayed, a move that would profoundly shake public faith in our democracy here at home.

The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress has joined with a coalition of nonpartisan electoral reform groups to launch Fix the System, a new group dedicated to effective governance and fair representation for all Americans. One measure stands above all others as the country faces this pandemic, and this measure is expanding the ability to vote by mail.

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Ohio recently offered a glimpse of what such a proactive proposal might look like. At the urging of Republican Governor Mike DeWine, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle unanimously approved an all mail vote for the primary election that had successfully concluded last week. Governors and state legislatures across the country need to quickly adopt vote by mail reforms in anticipation of the election this fall. Additional federal funds must also be made available immediately to assist these efforts.

Mail voting carries advantages over in person voting, and it is typically cheaper. Not only does the practice reduce long waits at overburdened polling stations, it also increases fairness, bolsters overall turnout, and makes voting procedures much more conducive for public health. Red, blue, and purple states have discovered these advantages after a lot of experience with absentee voting. States only need to expand measures that already exist today and are in widespread use across the country.

Criticism that mail voting is less secure than in person voting does not hold up to scrutiny. The digital machines used in many physical polling stations are vulnerable to hacking or other tampering, for instance, and many leave no paper trail to verify results or conduct recounts. Voting by mail necessarily leaves such a paper trail, and the ballots themselves are marked with barcodes unique to each voter. So as long as voter rolls are kept up to date, which is crucial for accurate voting by mail or in person, then mailed ballots are arguably more secure than conventional voting.

Voter turnout in the United States also lags behind many other advanced democracies, largely because we make it harder for voters to exercise that right. Many Americans simply do not have the ability to vote, whether it is due to work schedules, health concerns, child care, or some other reason. By contrast, in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, the states that employed mail voting witnessed 10 percent greater turnout on average. Mail voting can also help address the criticism that some states discriminate against minority voters by closing polling places in majority minority precincts.

Virtually every state has experience dealing with mail or absentee ballot systems, which are particularly helpful to military voters or citizens with mobility challenges. Five states already conduct their elections almost entirely by mail, and three other states each allow counties to conduct elections completely by mail if they so choose. Another 28 states allow voters to cast absentee ballots by mail without having to give a reason. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of Americans of all political leanings support the introduction of mail ballots to make elections much safer.

The coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in institutions and governing systems, but it has reminded us that we are in this crisis as one people, battling a common scourge and united by the ties that bind us. Perhaps the most fundamental is the right to vote, which needs to be protected from all the ravages of this disease in the coming months and beyond.

Glenn Nye (@GlennNye) is the president and chief executive officer of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and a former United States representative from Virginia. Chris Condon (@CondonSense) is the policy analyst at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.