By Alexis Richards and Abe Nelson
The coronavirus pandemic will still be ravaging our nation – and countries worldwide – come November. It may even be worse.
Regardless of political affiliation or ideology, the constitutional right to vote is integral to the function and protection of our democracy. For the country to not take the clear steps to safely hold local and national elections in the context of COVID-19 is a crime bordering constitutional crisis.
Recently, we’ve seen elected officials shamefully build political capital on the backs of suffering constituents. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order pushing the state’s April 7 elections to June in an effort to protect Wisconsinites planning to vote in person. The state supreme court struck down the order hours later, presumably to secure conservative incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly’s seat on the very same court. In response to this injustice, Wisconsinites risked their health to vote, a record number voted absentee by mail, and liberal challenger Jill Karofsky won Kelly’s seat.
Politics aside, the damage of this decision is done, and its implications clear — at least 67 Wisconsinites have been diagnosed with COVID-19 after visiting a polling site to vote on April 7. This could have been avoided.
Protecting the right to vote is not a political issue — it’s a matter of public health. The federal government can and should provide the resources states need to ensure voters aren’t forced to choose between their health and their civic duty in November. Universal Vote by Mail is that solution.
Giving every registered voter the option to vote by mail is a tested practice. Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C. allow no-excuse absentee voting by mail and five states — Utah, Hawaii, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon — have universal vote by mail systems where each registered voter is mailed a ballot.
Expanding universal vote by mail before November would require clearing significant hurdles. Implementation would entail sending ballots with prepaid return envelopes to every registered voter and launching procedures for securely processing an increased quantity of mail-in ballots in 45 states — a challenging process exacerbated by the pandemic that could cost $2 billion.
Fortunately, there is momentum. Many states including Indiana, Kentucky, and Alabama are allowing no-excuse absentee voting during the pandemic and California intends to send all registered voters ballots for the November election. Federally, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have advanced a bill to allow every American to vote by mail while the CARES Act includes $400 million and the Phase 4 Democratic proposal includes $3.6 billion for election security. These funds aren’t earmarked but they could help expand vote by mail and complementary policies like increased early voting.
If heeded soon, policy prescriptions can clear logistical hurdles. Unfortunately, politicians are stymying progress. The opposition is overwhelmingly Republican. President Trump (who voted by mail in Florida’s March primary) falsely claims people “cheat” when voting by mail and warned if universal vote by mail were implemented nationally, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Similarly, conservative groups have raised dubious claims that 28 million mail-in ballots went missing between 2012 and 2018 and the RNC is suing to block California from implementing universal vote by mail.
These scare tactics build on voter suppression that has intensified since the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013. Among other shameful acts at least 17 million voters were purged from the nation’s voting rolls between 2016 and 2018.
Impeding vote by mail is an obvious voter suppression tactic that threatens to create a public health crisis while ignoring that voting by mail is popular, safe, and nonpartisan. 72% of voters want the option to vote by mail during the pandemic. Moreover, claims of fraud are quickly rebutted. For example, Oregon has seen 12 cases of proven voter fraud out of 100 million ballots cast since 2000. Similarly, ‘missing’ mail-in ballots are un-cast ballots that were mailed to voters who either requested an absentee ballot or live in universal vote by mail states. It would be like saying the 250 million votes from people who didn’t vote in person between 2012 and 2018 are ‘missing.’
Finally, voting by mail need not be partisan. Purple states like Colorado (which elected a Republican Senator in its first universal vote by mail election in 2014) and deep red states like Utah use universal vote by mail. Similarly, states with Republican governors have shown responsible leadership despite fear mongering. For example, Ohio held its April primary by mail and its Republican Governor and Secretary of State are challenging President Trump’s claims that voting by mail harms Republicans, while taking steps to expand voting by mail in November.
Popularity, security, and nonpartisanship do not mean electoral integrity should be ignored. States should hunt for fraud while following Fair Fight’s gold standards for safeguarding elections, including notifying voters of signature matching issues and tracking ballots. Nor does it mean in-person elections should be eliminated — states should particularly focus on expanding early voting and protecting poll workers. Rather, the fact that universal vote by mail is popular and practical is a sign that the federal government must act immediately to help states set up safe, fair elections.
Elections are state-run, but, as we fight COVID-19 nationwide, the responsibility has fallen on the federal government to provide states with the resources they need to safely administer the 2020 election. With the Phase 4 Coronavirus Relief package still in Congress, there is much that can be done while Americans shelter-at-home.
Take action and contact your representatives to fight for our democracy. Initiatives such as Crooked Media’s Vote Safe, America and Let America Vote’s SAFE Democracy Project provide users with seamless opportunities to contact their elected officials via phone or email, with a provided script.
Share articles, memes, and figures with your broader networks. Mobilized communities, states and localities are necessary for national momentum. No Zoom call, Twitter feed or Instagram following is too small to make change happen.
Stay informed, and prevent the spread of misinformation and scare tactics. Avoid complacency: in New York, Governor Cuomo announced a mail-in primary and the cancellation of the state’s presidential primary in nearly the same breath. Apathy begets disenfranchisement, and there is no greater threat to our country than that.
Alexis Richards is first-year MPA student at NYU Wagner specializing in Advocacy and Political Action, and President of the Wagner Women’s Caucus. She currently works as a communications intern for congressional candidate Gina Ortiz Jones, working to flip Texas district 23 blue. Her past professional experience includes serving as an intern for former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and working on the communications team in the Office of New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan). She volunteers her time at the Lower Eastside Girls Club, where she serves on the executive board of the Angel Alliance. She holds a B.A. in Communications and Consumer Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her background is in PR, executing strategy for brands such as Target and Rebecca Minkoff.
Abe Nelson is a first-year MPA student at NYU Wagner specializing in Advocacy and Political Action, and staff writer for The Wagner Review. He is currently a graduate student intern with the ACLU’s National Political Advocacy Department. Most recently, he served as a research assistant on the data team at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy. Prior to enrolling at Wagner, he interned on the cultural engagement and research teams at Everytown for Gun Safety and worked as a program associate in the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Kenyon College.