Embrace Mail Voting Now, or You May Lose Your Chance to Vote in 2020

Coronavirus is not going away soon — so we need a safer way to vote

Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

As coronavirus spreads across the United States, it’s increasingly clear that every part of life will be touched by this pandemic — and that includes the November 2020 election. Medical experts expect successive waves of the virus to keep Americans practicing social distancing until a vaccine is developed, which could take 18 months; if the virus mutates, the timeline could be much longer. That means that voting in person on Tuesday, November 3, is likely to carry serious health risks.

There is a straightforward solution with a strong track record: vote at home. Voters get their ballot mailed to them weeks before Election Day, and they fill it out in the comfort (and safety) of their own home. Then, they either mail it in or drop it in a designated drop box. No need to wait in line with a bunch of people who may be carrying a life-threatening disease, or to touch a voting machine that dozens (or hundreds) have touched before them, or to jeopardize the health of poll workers (who skew much older than the general population).

The last round of primary elections on March 17 suffered from all of these problems and more. Poll judges and volunteers stayed home to avoid falling ill, so voting sites were closed or relocated without notice. Ballot-marking devices were unable to be adequately cleaned without turning them off and on again between voters. College students who had been sent home due to school closures struggled to determine whether they could still vote. Confusion reigned supreme, and, judging by the reaction on Twitter, trust in election results likely plummeted.

What happens if we don’t act now?

Here’s the big elephant in the room. Without a safe voting option this November, Donald Trump and the Republican leadership may very well attempt to postpone the general election, buying him time to strengthen the floundering economy and boost his low approval ratings. Even before COVID-19 started spreading, Trump had already toyed with the idea of violating election law and serving five terms in office. He has a long track record of doing whatever serves his self-interest, legality (or morality) be damned. In recent weeks, the president has infamously blamed coronavirus on China, setting up an easy — and blatantly false — argument that the virus is a form of foreign interference in U.S. elections.

To be clear, Trump could not unilaterally postpone the election. He would need the buy-in of Congress — and right now, Democrats have no intention of letting him get away with such a dangerous power-grab. But what happens if, come November, coronavirus continues to be so risky that experts caution against public gatherings? Democrats in Congress will be faced with a terrible choice: 1) fight against election postponement, knowing full well that holding the election as scheduled will harm public safety, or 2) support Trump’s plan to postpone the election, indulging his authoritarian impulses and setting an incredibly dangerous precedent.

We can avoid this nightmarish scenario — but only if we act immediately. To ensure the elections proceed as planned, we need to do everything we can now to ensure all voters can participate safely via a national vote at home plan.

How is this different from regular voting by mail?

As of now, only five states have a true vote at home system in place: Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Hawaii. California is in the process of transitioning to vote at home, with a target end date of 2022, and a few more states let voters sign up to automatically receive a ballot by mail every election. But about half of states make you request a so-called “absentee ballot” every time you want to vote by mail, and more than a dozen require a valid excuse for why you can’t vote in person. (And no, “there is a raging pandemic sweeping the nation” is not typically considered a valid excuse.) This map from Vote At Home has more details:

What can I do now?

The answer to this question depends on who you are.

If you’re a regular person without any special ties to government or election administrators: Call your senators, and ask them to support a new federal bill that will make sure every state has a vote-by-mail option before the 2020 election. Read more about the bill and take action here and here.

If you’re a state government official or an election administrator (or if you know someone who is): Work to change the rules so every voter can easily receive a ballot by mail. If your state requires voters to provide an excuse, ask for that requirement to be thrown out. If your state only gives people the option to vote by mail, push your state to instead mail ballots to everyone. For help, reach out to the good people at Vote At Home, who have a long track record of helping legislators and administrators get this right.

PhD student at UC Berkeley studying political inequality, interest groups, and democratic reforms