COVID-19 Threatens Democracy, Too

How long can the primaries be postponed, and what will happen in November? Nine states have postponed primary elections due to the Corona virus.  (https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/16/politics/state-primaries-postponed-coronavirus/index.html.)

What will happen If the crisis lasts past the new election dates?  The U.S. has never cancelled federal elections before — even during WWII, soldiers were sent special vote-by-mail ballots if they didn’t have “absentee” ones. (https://americanhistory.si.edu/democracy-exhibition/vote-voice/keeping-vote/state-rules-federal-rules/soldier-vote.)

Alaska has seized this opportunity to convert to vote-by-mail, for the primary at least, and Maryland is mailing ballots for the special election for Elijah Cummings’s Congressional seat.  But most states don’t have the resources to switch to vote-by-mail – it’s expensive. The $2 Trillion stimulus package makes a start, but offers states only a small fraction of what’s needed. The League of Women Voters explains at https://www.lwv.org/newsroom/press-releases/covid-19-stimulus-package-falls-short-adequate-election-funding.  Another benefit of vote-by-mail is its paper trail.  No complex, online system is un-hackable. Tallies and recounts must have the ability to be audited.

Expense is one obstacle to vote-by-mail. The other is a tradition of voter suppression.  Some states (AL, AR, CT, MA, MO, NH, WV) require an excuse from all voters, and others (IN, KY, LA, MS, TN, TX, SC ) recognize seniors might have difficulties getting to their polling stations and don’t require them to provide an excuse. (https://www.voteathome.org/ ) The application process varies in difficulty by state, but is always easier for people with cars and the ability to take time off from work without losing wages. The process is clearly intended to discourage poor and minority voters.

A less expensive, but riskier option in the short term, is simply to extend early voting.  Allow enough time for voters to show up in manageable groups, during and after work, staggered by address or other identifier.  And make sure the polling station has enough voting booths and volunteers with masks and gloves to avoid crowding.  Long term, it’s more economical to offer vote-by-mail with centralized voting centers for assistance, and to register people automatically at motor vehicle and social services agencies.

What Can You Do?

Ask your elected representatives and your social media friends to support legislation to adequately fund upcoming elections. And volunteer with groups that promote voting rights and voter registration.  Here’s what your Registrar of Voters should be doing to promote voting according to the League of Women Voters https://www.lwv.org/blog/10-things-elections-officials-can-do-safeguard-our-elections-spring-summer-and-fall?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=033020 and the Brennan Center https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/estimated-costs-covid-19-election-resiliency-measures.  

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