Election security has become a more prominent (and urgent) topic in the United States over the past few years, but as the Covid-19 pandemic rages, a different type of crisis is also presenting itself: how to carry out voting in a way that maintains both social distancing and electoral integrity. With less than seven months before November 3, too many states still don’t have a full-fledged contingency plan—and haven’t yet embraced the expansion of absentee voting by mail.
Health care professionals recommend mail-in voting as the safest approach during the pandemic, but Republicans have consistently disparaged it. President Donald Trump has spent the last week railing against it, both in news conferences and on Twitter, despite mailing in his own vote in the 2018 election. And the issue came to a head this week when Wisconsin held its primary on Tuesday without adequate protections for poll workers or voters, who stood in crowded lines for hours at a handful of open polling places.
Universal vote-by-mail remains a relative rarity in the US. But every state offers absentee mail-in voting in some form. Ensuring voter safety and turnout would require only a temporary loosening of requirements of who qualifies for absentee voting. That way, anyone who feels unsafe going to the polls can mail in their ballot instead. If the threat of Covid-19 somehow completely disappears months before the election, go ahead with the status quo.
That’s what voting advocates have suggested, along with other scenarios like expanding early in-person voting to thin out crowds. As so often happens, Trump’s invective has confused the issue. “Absentee Ballots are a great way to vote for the many senior citizens, military, and others who can’t get to the polls on Election Day,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “These ballots are very different from 100% Mail-In Voting, which is ‘RIPE for FRAUD,’ and shouldn’t be allowed!”
The ballots aren’t different at all; there simply may be more Americans than usual who “can’t get to the polls” because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington all offer universal vote-by-mail; you can drop your ballot off in the mailbox, in dedicated drop boxes, or at polling places, depending on the state. This universal approach adds complexities to ballot tracking and voter authentication, but the five states that use it have reported low rates of fraud. They’ll also remain the exception, not the rule, no matter what requirements other states loosen this fall.
“For states like Colorado and Oregon, it took them years to get there with vote by mail,” says Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University School of Law. “I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that in five months or six months the country will make that change and have an all-mail election. But there will be a massive increase in people voting by mail, or asking to vote by mail in 2020 specifically. I’m sure of it. So we’ll need the infrastructure in place to support that.”
Secure voting advocates agree on what that pandemic voting infrastructure should look like. Every state will need to double down on accepting as many types of voter registration as possible, including online and same-day registration if possible. Districts should consider adding more days of in-person early voting to reduce crowds, and officials will need to set up polling places that enable social distancing. Voting districts will also need to recruit and pay more poll workers to support expanded in-person voting and equip them with personal protective equipment. And every voter should have the option to request a ballot and vote absentee by mail.
“Right now we’re focusing on making sure that no voter is disenfranchised during this health crisis,” Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the nonpartisan pro-democracy group Common Cause, said on a call with reporters.
Those unsafe lines in Wisconsin formed in part because the state saw a surge in absentee ballots that it could not meet; the conservative-controlled state supreme court and the US Supreme Court blocked a push to extend the absentee voting deadline or delay the primary altogether. It’s likely that many would-be voters chose to stay home rather than risk infection. Absentee ballots that were postmarked by Election Day will still be counted whenever they arrive.
“The squabbles over what’s the best option have to stop,” says Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a group that promotes election security best practices. “Partisanship has to be laid aside and we have to do what we can to enable as many eligible voters to vote as possible. Because logistics and supply chain—all those things have to happen. If you loosen the requirements for absentee mail ballots, you need to get a lot more ballots printed.”
Despite Trump’s repeated attempts to discredit vote by mail, the bipartisan National Association of Secretaries of State, which includes the top election officials of 40 states, has endorsed it as a mechanism that could help the remaining primaries and on election day itself.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but instead a 50-state solution,” Iowa secretary of state Paul Pate and New Mexico secretary of state Maggie Toulouse Oliver wrote in an open letter appeal from NASS at the end of March. “In particular, states may increase their vote by mail presence, extend absentee mail ballot request deadlines, increase drive-up curbside voting, and/or expand absentee voting eligibility.”
Other nonpartisan organizations are rapidly embracing and promoting vote-by-mail as well. The nonprofit voting machine maker VotingWorks, for example, announced a new program on Thursday called VxMail that will provide tools to election jurisdictions to scale up vote-by-mail processing infrastructure—including help coordinating the logistics of ballot printing, envelope stuffing, mailing, ballot receipt, signature verification, and ballot tabulation. For small and medium-sized precincts that typically process a few hundred mail-in absentee ballots manually, VxMail will help automate processing for 2,000 to 50,000 ballots. And VxMail can help jurisdictions buy and set up off-the-shelf hardware so three election staffers can handle mailing and return processing up to 50,000 ballots.
“This is a nonpartisan issue. We’re simply providing tools to help election officials do their job,” says VotingWorks executive editor Ben Adida. “It would be a mistake to turn emergency measures into permanent policy changes without more discussion. Let’s solve the emergency for now.”
Even a nonprofit project like VxMail isn’t free, though. And election officials are wary about making preparations on a limited budget. Congress’ stimulus package, passed at the end of March, includes $400 million earmarked specifically for states to expand their election pandemic response measures. The money is certainly sorely needed, but NYU’s Brennan Center estimates that it will take a total of about $2 billion to get everything done.
“I think for a lot of people the virus makes this election even more important,” Norden says. “So we have to expect that people are going to want to vote and that they are going to turn out. What’s left is the question of whether or not we honor that by investing enough to have a free and fair election.”
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