We started 2020 believing that the presidential elections in November would be the Big Story of the year. Now, COVID-19 – and the complications it causes – has changed all that. The virus is sweeping through our communities and many of us can think of little else.
Yet, the pandemic has laid bare the many reasons why voting and civic engagement matter so much. Here are just a few: forward-looking government planning matters, science matters, public policies that strengthen our communities matter, who’s in the White House giving daily briefings matters. (I could go on.) Clearly, not voting is not an option this year. But, how are we going to do it safely? And how can we ensure that everyone can participate?
Is Vote-by-Mail the Answer?
More states are shifting toward remote voting aka vote-by-mail. The National Vote at Home Institute is a leader in the space and When We All Vote, with an all-star cast (headlined by former First Lady Michelle Obama) is an emerging voice on this issue. When We All Vote thinks that every American should get a ballot in the mail this year. (We agree!) According to a Stanford University study reported in The New York Times, voting-by-mail increased turnout by 1.9 to 2.4 percentage points.
Five states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington already have a strong vote-by-mail infrastructure and it has worked well. Two-thirds of all states allow for mail-in voting by simple request – you don’t need a reason. They call it an absentee ballot. Absentee ballots must be mailed in advance of Election Day. View the rules for your state here.
It’s interesting to note that some version of absentee voting has existed since the Civil War disrupted the election of 1864. Ever since then, the government has ensured that active duty service members and those in the foreign service get absentee ballots. Apparently, even President Trump plans to vote by absentee ballot this year!
Many states have also implemented early voting to help ease crowding on Election Day. In a year like this one, you’d think everyone would be for these tried and true methods for voting. But that’s not the case.
So what’s the big deal?
In public, those who oppose vote-by-mail, including the 45th POTUS, say that paper ballots invite fraud. In private, they admit that it increases voter turnout for the “other side,” which they oppose. Republicans believe higher turnout advantages Democrats, although this has not been born out in recent studies.
The efficacy of voting-by-mail is not so straightforward and as this article from ProPublica points out, vote-by-mail is not that simple to implement on the fly. Part of the problem is that your options for vote-by-mail vary tremendously depending on where you live. Elections are county-run affairs. Without some major interventions, many jurisdictions say they won’t logistically be able to pull off vote-by-mail within the six-month timeframe.
Voting by mail has its problems but since our physical safety is top of minds right now, it makes sense to get it right. Yes, we will miss joining our communities at the polls on Election Day, taking our children along for the civics lesson, and chatting with neighbors in line. But we’re willing to give that up this time – just to be safe from the virus. In this strangest of election seasons, it’s clear that our very lives depend on it.
Staying Abreast of What You Need to Know.
Remote voting decisions are going to play out on the state level, and the debate will move swiftly. Here are four things you can do right now to stay in the know.
- Go here to find out options for voting in your state.
- Pay attention to deadlines. Vote-by-mail will typically require your ballot to be postmarked by Election Day. So, planning ahead will be necessary.
- Check your ballot twice. If you do decide to vote-by-mail, it is vitally important that you double-check your ballot to make sure it is error-free. It may be necessary to assist elders with the new process. Also, don’t forget to SIGN your ballot.
- Finally, be sure to let your members of Congress know that you WILL vote – but that you shouldn’t have to risk your life to do it.