The coronavirus pandemic has taken lives and wealth, but it presents another challenge as well: a challenge to our form of government. An election is coming in November. The pandemic will not be over. Just as our medical and economic systems must rise to their respective tests, so must our political system. We must ensure an election based on the principle that Americans should be free to vote without imperiling themselves or others.
The principle is high-minded, but the methods of accomplishing it are practical. The key is to massively expand two existing and proven systems: absentee voting and a suite of safe methods by which to vote in person (e.g., drive-through voting and augmented hours at the polls to reduce standing in line).
The tough part is to get political leaders on board and to take the necessary action in time. To that end, American political leaders and citizens need to take eight steps.
First, recognize that we risk a Wisconsin-style election debacle if we don’t act. Last month, Wisconsin insisted on going forward with in-person voting in the middle of the pandemic. The result? Turnout in some counties dropped by over 40 percent relative to 2016. Poll workers, who tend to be elderly, stayed home, forcing Milwaukee to close 175 polling locations (leaving just five) and Green Bay to close 29 (leaving just two). That meant absurdly (and dangerously) long lines at the few polling stations that stayed open. Meanwhile, absentee voting spiked by 70 percent compared with the 2016 primary. Since the state wasn’t prepared for the additional million absentee requests it received, thousands of absentee ballots weren’t mailed in time, weren’t counted, or were simply lost in tubs. (One of the illusions in this debate is the notion that absentee versus in-person voting is completely up to politicians. It’s not. Tens of millions of voters already have the legal right to vote absentee at will. Their states just aren’t ready for the numbers they’ll see in November.) Finally, confusing last-minute litigation marred the sense of certainty that elections are supposed to provide.
In the end, Democrats came out ahead, picking up a key state-supreme-court seat. That fact alone should spur Republicans to reconsider whether insisting on in-person voting is good for the party, at least during an election that has liberals fired up and the elderly inclined to stay home. But the larger story in Wisconsin was an election “almost certain to be tarred as illegitimate.” All Wisconsinites lost that day. All Americans will lose if similar dysfunction happens nationwide in November. Legitimacy questions are bad for the country in the best of times. They can be catastrophic during a medical and economic crisis.
Second, realize that this election is a matter of national pride and international power. American elections matter beyond U.S. borders. China and the United States are competing for influence in the world today. Prior phases of the competition were about economic productivity and military might. The present one is about which political system can deal more effectively with a pandemic. The world is watching, and the results could affect the future prospects of democracy itself.
Third, overcome Republican partisanship based on bad facts. Political observers often assume that absentee voting helps Democrats, but that assumption might be wrong even in ordinary times. Florida’s absentee-voting system is key to Republican turnout; it helped Donald Trump in 2016 and Ron DeSantis in 2018. Existing vote-by-mail systems in Colorado and Utah have had no clear advantage for either party. Empirical studies suggest that expanding absentee voting, even greatly expanding it, would be party-neutral. Knight Foundation data suggest that higher turnout would help Trump in some swing states.
In any case, these aren’t ordinary times. A recent Ohio study found that 50 percent of likely voters in that swing state “definitely won’t vote in person” or would be “less likely to vote in person” if coronavirus remains a concern in November. With numbers that big, the party effect is unpredictable. Old assumptions don’t hold when facts on the ground change, and this pandemic changes the underlying facts. Perhaps most important, the more information we get about COVID-19, the clearer it becomes that the disease threatens the elderly to a massively disproportionate extent. The elderly tend to vote Republican. If they stay home while young, highly activated liberal voters show up, Republicans will probably lose.
Fourth, overcome Democratic partisanship based on political opportunism. Some Democrats want to seize on the crisis to make permanent changes to our voting system. Republican opposition would defeat that effort. Nothing would get done. Instead, both parties should agree that any alteration to the voting system in November should include sunset clauses stipulating that the changes are a one-off.
Fifth, Congress must provide funding. States can’t afford the necessary steps otherwise. And since this election is for national offices, the federal government should take some responsibility for it, as a matter of principle.
Sixth, states must take legal action to prevent hacking and voter fraud. Such steps are, again, both right as a matter of principle and necessary to overcome partisan wrangling. In the fight against voter fraud, signature-matching, ballot-tracking, and a commitment to prosecuting wrongdoers are proven tools. Affording voters the opportunity to prove questioned signatures is, of course, equally necessary. As to hacking, experience has shown that paper ballots are the most effective means of prevention. There is no system of e-voting that can’t be hacked, but paper ballots work, and absentee ballots are paper ballots.
Seventh, states must prepare quickly. Five states — from blue Hawaii to red Utah — already have robust vote-by-mail systems. Twenty-nine more states and the District of Columbia allow absentee voting at will but aren’t prepared for the volume they’ll see in November; they need to ramp up capacity. Of the remaining 16 states, some allow early voting but restrict absentee ballots, some restrict both, some impose requirements (e.g., notarization of mailed ballots) that don’t make sense during a pandemic, and some allow different municipalities to set different policies. These states will need both to make legal changes and to ramp up capacity. Some won’t be able to make all the necessary changes in time but could nonetheless make some useful policy adjustments, such as allowing drive-through voting and expanding the hours or days that polls will be open.
Finally, American citizens must remind their politicians that a representative works for the people who voted him or her into office, not for the party, and not for the president. The American people want options for absentee and safe in-person voting in November. A poll in late April found that 70 percent of Republicans support giving all voters the option to vote absentee in November and that 67 percent want the federal government to cough up the money to make expanded absentee and safe in-person voting possible. On the Democratic side, the numbers are even higher.
Elections are sacred. Americans have shed blood for the right to vote, and many would put their lives on the line for democracy again. But why should they do so needlessly? No party and no representative worthy of the name should demand that.
Joshua Kleinfeld is a law professor at Northwestern University and a 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.