GOP Leaders Get Vote-by-Mail All Wrong

Workers prepare ballots from a drop box for the mail sorting machine during the presidential primary at King County Elections ballot processing center in Renton, Wash., March 10, 2020. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, elected officials of both parties have a moral responsibility to ensure that every American who wants to vote can do so safely.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n response to the COVID-19 crisis, House Democrats recently unveiled the HEROES Act, emergency legislation to provide important protections for everyday Americans — among the most important of which would safeguard voting. In response to the bipartisan desire to give all Americans remote-voting options in a time of social distancing, Democrats have made clear their commitment to protecting this inalienable right during the coronavirus pandemic. I invite my fellow Republicans to join in this commitment.

The issue of suffrage in the United States has long been fraught with political and racial undercurrents, but the COVID-19 crisis has exposed just how vulnerable our electoral system has become. During Wisconsin’s primary in April, voters were forced to choose whether to cast their ballot at a polling place and risk their health or sit the election out at home. Photos of Wisconsinites — some garbed in hazmat suits — standing six feet apart in winding queues spoke volumes. The state’s primary wasn’t just disorganized; it was dangerous, and likely caused dozens of people to be infected with the virus.

And yet Republican leaders remain opposed to efforts to ensure the integrity of our electoral system by allowing for no-excuse absentee balloting and thereby preventing what happened in Wisconsin from being repeated 50 times over come November. Party officials are so outraged by the prospect of adopting the system currently used by military and overseas voters that they recently launched a full-on campaign suggesting vote-by-mail is the “Democrats’ assault on our elections.” Politicizing measures that more and more experts agree are essential to protecting our elections from COVID-19 is a disservice to every American who wants to vote and an affront to the idea that Republicans only want to “protect the vote.”

Partisan intransigence is not just unwarranted in this case, it is also out of step with what Republican voters are starting to demand. A recent poll conducted by Hart Research Associates shows that there is strong support for safe voting options on both sides of the aisle. Three in four voters in Senate battleground states want their senators to vote for legislation ensuring that every eligible voter has the right to vote by mail, and providing funds to improve vote-by-mail systems and early in-person voting. Moreover, 83 percent of those polled support voters’ having multiple options for casting ballots in November. Just about every poll we’ve seen on this issue demonstrates bipartisan support for expanding vote-by-mail systems and offering Americans safe voting options this year.

If rejecting vote-by-mail is part of a Republican strategy to win in November, it’s a short-sighted one. Old-line opposition to voting reform is only alienating GOP voters at a time when many Republican Senate candidates are lagging behind Democrats in fundraising and polling. The same Hart Research Associates poll showed that 40 percent of Republicans would react unfavorably toward a GOP senator who opposed diversifying options for voting. The data are clear: Voters of both parties don’t want their access to the ballot to be limited. My party should listen to the voters.

The arguments offered by the Republican leadership against vote-by-mail expansion and other election reforms are not rooted in fact. They say that vote-by-mail systems are “ripe for fraud,” yet there have been fewer than 150 cases of fraud using mail ballots in the past two decades. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — already use it as their primary method of voting. Republican leaders also say voting reform only benefits blue states, yet Arizona and Florida — two states that have traditionally leaned Republican — have been pushing for vote-by-mail reforms for years, while Republican Mike Garcia’s recent pickup of a swing California House seat in an election almost entirely conducted by mail further undermines the partisan rhetoric.

There is legitimate debate to be had about election reform more broadly. Concerns that some proposed reforms may benefit one party over the other are valid, and should be heard. But mail-in voting does not favor either political party and has the added benefit of increasing voter turnout in rural and urban areas alike. Instead of finding reasons not to do something, this is the moment when every Republican elected official should be working to shore up the foundation of our democratic system so citizens can vote in November, no matter the state of our fight with the coronavirus.

The pandemic has made our collective future uncertain. But whatever the future holds, one thing is clear: Americans of every background and political affiliation will vote this fall. Those who hold elected office today have a moral responsibility to safeguard the ballot box and to give each citizen who wants to vote the opportunity to do so freely and without fear. It’s the right thing to do — and our democracy depends on it.

Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

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