How to Hold Elections during a Pandemic

Voter Fred Hoffman fills out his ballot during the primary election in Ottawa, Ill., March 17, 2020. The polling station was relocated from a nearby nursing home to a former supermarket due to concerns over the outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)
The United States is the beacon of democracy around the world. Let’s show the world that no pandemic can stop our elections.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W e might beat COVID-19 by fall. But if we don’t, what happens to our November election? Two principles are paramount. The election must be held. And people who want to vote must be able to do so without fear of infection and without worsening the pandemic. To uphold those principles, we must expand no-excuse absentee voting and make drive-through voting possible now.

Elections in a pandemic run two risks: spreading infection and diminishing democratic legitimacy. Iran’s COVID-19 cases surged after its February elections. Spain’s infections quintupled four days after a political rally in March; now Spain has requisitioned an ice rink to hold the dead. In Florida’s March primary, two poll workers contracted COVID-19, one of whom had handled voters’ driver’s licenses. In-person voting involves lining up and touching voting machines, which could be dangerous to voters without careful procedures. It also endangers poll workers, most of whom are over 60.

Meanwhile, if we hold the election as usual and huge numbers of citizens stay home, the outcome could be delegitimized. French president Emmanuel Macron began elections last month, then suspended them after the first round of voting. Was that because of historically low turnout and higher-than-expected virus risks — or was it because of his party’s poor showing in the first round? The United States is already at high levels of polarization and historically low levels of trust in government and fellow citizens. We cannot afford an election our people don’t believe in. That is especially true if we are dealing with a recession in November. Social trust and governmental legitimacy are strongly linked to GDP. A dubious election is bad news for our economy as well as our democracy.

A solution is available: expanding absentee voting and drive-through voting.

Neither requires unrealistic procedures. Drive-through voting, which parts of Wisconsin already use, lets citizens vote from the safety of their cars, using machines that have been disinfected. Voting by mail is already the voting system in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Hawaii. Expanding absentee voting in other states would require simply setting aside — for one election — requirements to request a ballot in advance or to provide specific justifications for not voting in person.

But these changes in voting procedures do require political action now. First, Congress needs to approve funding. States that already are cash-strapped from the pandemic’s economic fallout will need money to cover expenses such as printing and mailing excess ballots. The recent stimulus was a good, bipartisan start — but provided less than a quarter of what is likely needed.

States need to take political action, too. Those that require a special justification to receive an absentee ballot need to make a one-election exception. States that do not allow absentee ballots to be counted until Election Day need to modify their rules so as not to slow counts and leave the election result in doubt. Most states need to ramp up capacity, or they may be swamped with more requests than they can handle. And because not everyone can vote by mail, states need to modify their polling places for drive-through voting, expand early voting hours, and implement similar innovations. This can all be done in time — but only if action starts now.

These changes will neither clearly help one party at the other’s expense, nor increase voter fraud. The No. 1 group that votes by mail now are the elderly, who tend to vote Republican. As the elderly are also the group most affected by COVID-19, voting by mail might help them the most. On the other hand, increased turnout is typically good for Democrats, who benefit from greater youth and minority votes. Studies of vote-by-mail in Colorado and Utah have found increased turnout among a diverse assortment of groups, including young voters, voters with no party affiliation, and women over 80, benefitting no party in particular. Past experience in any case doesn’t tell us much, since those elections didn’t take place in the middle of a pandemic.

The truth is that no one knows whom expanded absentee voting and drive-through voting would favor in November 2020. That should make it easier to set aside our partisan identities and do what is right for democracy. So long as the change is a one-off, which can be written into state and federal legislation, it should overcome partisan bickering.

As for fraud, signature-matching is a proven method of deterrence and detection. Careful signature-matching procedures should accompany voting by mail and drive-through voting. But we shouldn’t exaggerate the risk: Oregon has mailed out about 100 million ballots since 2000, with only about 12 cases of proven fraud.

Right now, China is touting its authoritarian model as superior to our democratic one at addressing COVID-19. The United States is the beacon of democracy around the world. Let’s show the world that no pandemic can stop our elections.

Joshua Kleinfeld is a law professor at Northwestern University and winner of the Federalist Society’s Bator Award. Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program at the Carnegie Endowment and a member of the bipartisan National Task Force on Election Crisis. They are brother and sister.

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