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States must pivot to safe early voting

On Monday, former first lady Michelle Obama said something that had not been widely discussed. “We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can,” she said in her Democratic National Convention speech.

Democrats have pinned their hopes on mail-in and absentee voting. But the funding has not been provided by Congress, and many states do not have the infrastructure to send and/or process these ballots.

During the primaries, hundreds of thousands of voters who requested absentee ballots did not receive them, or sent them only for them not to be received in time to be counted. Baltimore City and Montgomery County, Md., saw “delays that resulted in 1 million registered voters … receiving their ballots late — or not at all.” A recent Election Information Gathering Task Force in Westchester County N.Y. reports, “The record-crushing demand for absentee ballots combined with problems at the US Postal Service resulted in late delivery of ballots … all of these factors worked together to disenfranchise some voters, and seriously inconvenience many more.” Lines on primary day in Westchester were over three hours long and “several polling locations still had voters waiting until almost midnight.”

General election turnout will inevitably be heavier than during the primaries, and not everyone is going to be able to vote by mail. Those voters who are healthy and mobile enough need to be able to vote in person, preferably early. The Brennan Center has released a report on best practices for safe in-person voting. The center recommends “expanding the number of voting locations for November, in order to avoid overcrowding at voting sites.” 

The last thing we want is for voters to get sick from standing in line in crowded polling places. But early voting is spread out over multiple days and offers voters an opportunity to cast their ballot in a less crowded environment.

All states and both political parties need to take advantage of this and could even help events go more smoothly by reaching out to registered voters and helping them to schedule a time to vote in advance. The parties can then guide voters to less crowded times, and voters who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 could also be scheduled during less-crowded times. Local media can help by reporting hourly on the length and location of lines to help voters make informed decisions.

Election officials can make decisions in advance that can help as well, such as providing the safest and fastest voting equipment. Research has shown that touchscreen machines increase lines because voters must make all of their decisions at the voting machine. Hand-marked paper ballots are less likely to spread the virus, because voters can mark their ballots in socially distanced privacy booths, and do not need to touch the same screen as others.

Early voting may carry increased security risks, but election officials could alleviate some of these with publicly viewable video surveillance of the voting machines, as well as all ballots and equipment such as memory cards. Strict chain of custody procedures protect us all, and increase voter confidence at a time when voters have acknowledged being worried about hacking. 

Working together, using all resources available, we can ensure that every eligible voter gets to vote safely in November, and that every eligible vote is counted as cast.

Lulu Friesdat is the executive director of SMART Elections. She is a journalist and filmmaker whose election security investigations have been featured in multiple media outlets, including Politico, Now This and She hosts an election protection forum that provides training to advocates and candidates. Follow her on Twitter @LuluFriesdat.

Tags 2020 election Absentee ballot Early voting Elections Electronic voting Michelle Obama Postal voting Voter turnout Voting

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