With coronavirus threatening the viability of in-person voting, and major state and national elections just a few months away, advocates are looking to expand alternative options
By Kiran Misra
Last week, in the middle of a global pandemic, and amid a statewide stay-at-home order, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an emergency order to postpone the primary elections. But Republican legislators petitioned the state’s Supreme Court to overrule the order, and won, courtesy of a 4-2 conservative majority. Meanwhile, a federal judge had extended the deadline for absentee ballots by six days, to provide voters an alternative to in-person voting. But with only a few hours to go before the polls opened on election day, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned that ruling, too, by a vote of 5-4. So voters in Wisconsin went to stand in hours-long lines in the rain, six feet apart. By all accounts, the event was an unmitigated disaster. Many poll workers stayed home rather than risk their health, and polling stations across the state closed down as a result; in Milwaukee, a city of six hundred thousand, only five polls were open.
Wisconsin’s voters are among millions who have had to decide between protecting their health or exercising a hard-fought and hard-won right to make their voices heard in the primaries. Three states in the Rust Belt have already voted; Michigan voted before many states had acted decisively on COVID-19, and in Illinois, the March 17 elections proceeded as scheduled despite rising community transmission of the coronavirus (in the weeks that followed, poll workers were diagnosed with, and died of complications from, COVID-19). Four other states have postponed their elections weeks or months down the road.
With coronavirus threatening the viability of in-person voting nationwide, and major state and national elections just a few months away, advocates are looking to expand safer voting options, including vote-by-mail. Access to voting by mail is already a reality for many people across the country. Five states in the western U.S. vote only by mail; absentee ballots are offered in many others; and twenty-eight states, including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois allow for “no-excuse” absentee voting, which doesn’t require any claim or proof of inability to cast a vote in-person on election day.
Nationally, the issue is notably partisan. In the Congressional coronavirus stimulus package, Democrats had included a provision to mandate no-excuse vote-by-mail nationally, but it was removed following Republican opposition. Meanwhile, in the last week, President Donald Trump, who voted by mail in the Florida primary, claimed that mail-in votes are more susceptible to fraud, and that if voting access were expanded in this manner, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Voting by mail has not been shown to systematically benefit the supporters of one party over another – if implemented everywhere, it could help older, rural voters, who often vote Republican and wouldn’t have to contend with traditionally long travels to the polls, as well younger voters, who tend to vote Democratic, and who would no longer face obstacles like inflexible work schedules or difficulty with transportation. And in addition to preventing the spread of coronavirus at polling places, voting by mail can also help combat some forms of voter suppression. “There won’t be four-hour lines because of machine malfunctions or there not being enough voting booths and in-person polling locations. [And] voters also won’t have to face intimidation at polling places,” Amber McReynolds, CEO of Vote At Home and former Director of Elections for the State of Colorado, explained.
At the local level, many states have already laid the groundwork for expanding vote-by-mail—and it’s often noticeably less partisan than the national conversation. For example, in Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill to expand vote by mail even before the coronavirus, implementing no-excuse absentee balloting in 2019. And on March 25 this year, the Indiana Election Commission approved statewide no excuse mail-in voting in response to COVID-19, and, at the recommendation of Republican Governor Eric Holcomb, approved the creation of an online absentee ballot application.
In the middle of a pandemic, planning for an increase in voting by mail isn’t just an intellectual exercise; it seems the clearest path toward maintaining any semblance of a democracy. Voters across the region are already requesting absentee ballots in unprecedented numbers. “The best thing that local and state officials can do is prepare for the inevitable,” McReynolds said, “which is going to be the highest number of vote by mail ballots ever cast in an election.”
The night before Ohio’s primary elections, Rebecca Maurer, a Democratic Party ward leader in Cleveland, waited to hear whether she should start setting up for the polls. “They flip-flopped like five times over the course of the evening whether it was on or not. We kept getting called to go in to help set up our polling locations. We were called off, then we were called in, and we were called off again. It was really something else,” she said. Eventually, the next morning, the election was postponed to April 28, but for most Ohio residents, the election will be conducted almost entirely by mail-in ballots.
“That was probably about the longest thirteen hours of my life, where we went from having an election to not having to having an election, and not having the final word until four a.m. on election day,” Mike Brickner of All Voting is Local, an organization that works to eliminate barriers to voting in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, told me. “Even today, there continues to be a lot of uncertainty. People didn’t know for over a week after the election when and how we were actually going to vote.”
That’s a concern for Maurer, whose ward often has some of the lowest voter turnout in Cuyahoga County. “[In the three and a half weeks] since the extended primary started on March 25, our entire ward had only had four hundred and sixty people submit their form,” she said. “And of our roughly twelve thousand registered voters, less than eight hundred had voted early… so we have thousands to make up. We’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
In Ohio, making sure every voter actually gets a ballot is a multi-step process. The state law for absentee voting requires voters to first submit a request form to receive an absentee ballot. “And if you don’t have a printer, you have to request the request form. So you have to get this piece of paper that you fill out, mail in, then they mail you your ballot and you fill out the ballot and mail in the ballot. And because of that, what we were seeing in Ward 12 was just really, really abysmal response rates,” Maurer explained.
At Cleveland Votes, a nonpartisan, statewide voter outreach organization, Jennifer Lumpkin and her coworkers are trying to target those who may be missed by government outreach efforts. “Folks who are most disenfranchised, like our homeless population… they don’t have an address so they’re not receiving communications from our Board of Elections,” Lumpkin said. Native populations on reservations are also susceptible to being overlooked in a voting process that is conducted almost entirely by mail, since many don’t have street addresses or may not have a permanent residence.
In Illinois, Jay Young, the Executive Director of Common Cause Illinois, is looking ahead to November, working with his own coalition to testify before the Illinois State Board of Elections about the necessity of making sure racial equity is central in any election plans. “If the state starts mailing ballots, there’s concerns about what languages these ballots will be in, plus any complimentary and educational materials that come with it. Will they be culturally competent?”
He also sees opportunity in using online tools to simplify the voting process, promoting a universal online application for ballots and pushing to make sure voters have the opportunity to track their ballots online. “We want to grow our electorate and it doesn’t work if the system feels overly oppressive to people,” he explained.
But online efforts can’t replace every form of in-person engagement, especially voter registration outreach which is largely conducted at in-person events. “Most third party registration groups tend to serve low income people, people of color, and people who are incarcerated,” Young said. “You can’t just replace that by email or calling people because we don’t always have that information for people who are more transient.”
One of the greatest sticking points in the fight over mass voting by mail is the question of fraud. “We have to be concerned about the perception of legitimacy of the election itself,” says Lonna Atkeson, Director of the Center for the Study of Voting Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. “We want a system that creates as much access and limits fraud as much as possible, but it’s really hard to [target] fraud in the system. The kind of security there is during an in-person election to make sure people are not engaging in criminal acts–you have people of different parties at the polling location, you have a chain of custody on the ballots. You don’t have that by mail.”
McReynolds is quick to push back against claims that fraud is prevalent in the mail voting system. In states like Colorado, where she used to serve as the Director of Elections, systems like signature verification, ballot tracking, and address update systems to maintain an accurate list of voters improved the security of the election process. “Over the last twenty years of two hundred and fifty million votes being cast nationally, [the conservative think tank] The Heritage Foundation found 1127 intances of voter fraud. When you break that down, it’s 0.0005108% of votes. That ends up being one case per state every six or seven years,” she said.
Some Rust Belt states face particular challenges in implementing mass voting by mail. In states like Michigan, election rules prevent the state from starting to process votes before election night. And Gronke, from the Early Voting Information Center, notes that the vast, decentralized electoral systems in states like Michigan and Wisconsin make it much harder to conduct a remotely-administered election. “Elections are not conducted at the county level, they’re conducted at the township and municipality level. The smallest election jurisdiction in Wisconsin has twenty registered voters, and Michigan’s like that as well,” he explains.
Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden, who have introduced a bill to expand vote-by-mail nationally, have estimated that at least $1.6 billion in additional funding will be needed, beyond what has already been allocated for election adaptation expenses through the CARES Act. The bill would require all states to send prepaid, self-sealing envelopes to all registered voters, which would cost more than $27 million in Illinois alone. Additional expenses include that of renting spaces to store all the ballots until they are ready to be counted, paying the salaries of those who are tasked with tabulating the votes, and acquiring technology allowing officials to ensure that no one who votes by mail also tries to cast a ballot in person.
For many states, even with ramped-up funding, the infrastructure just isn’t in place to ensure everyone receives a ballot. “If you want to move to where you just send out ballots to everyone, the question is, ‘how good is your voter file?’” Atkeson asked. “For most states, it’s not that good, especially in states where a very small percentage of your population votes that way.” And the smaller the jurisdiction, the harder to implement a new system, which requires extensive new technology and infrastructure, on short notice. “It’s a vastly different kind of system, Gronke said. “You have part-time people who do elections along with marriage licenses, property taxes, dog registration, any passport services. You’re just balancing all of these different responsibilities.”
Even with all the right infrastructure, many Americans have strong traditions of in-person voting. For naturalized immigrants, the choice feels especially poignant. When Apoorva Gundeti headed to the polls in Chicago, in March, it was the culmination of years of anticipation. Gundeti, a newly-minted U.S. citizen, had not envisioned casting her first vote in the middle of an escalating global pandemic and having to choose between her health and her vote, as not everyone at her polling place was observing social distancing protocols or using hand sanitizer.
“For the senior population, for a lot of folks, it has been a tradition for a long time. The Black, Latinx, Arabic community, a lot of our Asian communities have a tradition of going to the polls and it means something,” Lumpkin added.
Americans with disabilities also face significant barriers to voting by mail. “If you are blind or low vision, you have to have somebody assist you with a mail-in ballot. You can ask your spouse or your caretaker to assist you, but we should all be able to cast independent ballots,” Brickner said. “Similarly, if you have a mobility disability and you can’t hold a pen to mark your ballot, then you can’t use a paper ballot. People with disabilities are also more likely to have limited incomes; many of them live on Social Security income and don’t have extra money for postage or envelopes. And many of them have compromised immune systems so maybe going to the post office or to the grocery store could actually put their lives at risk.”
This year, Brickner and his team at All Voting is Local are increasing education outreach about Ohio’s remote ballot marking system through which voters with disabilities can cast a ballot from home with the help of online voting systems and screen readers. They’re also working to ensure those in the criminal justice system aren’t left out of the conversation about ballot access, as Boards of Elections go directly to jails to administer absentee ballots in normal election cycles. “In times of chaos, we oftentimes see restrictions on people’s liberty,” Brickner warns. “Now that we’re in this COVID-19 world, most jails are shut down to visitors. Volunteer groups can’t get into a jail to register voters and to get them applications for an absentee ballot.”
To address these issues, community coalitions have assembled lists of voting access demands to present to Governor DeWine later this week, including plans to expand early voting and online registration and make sure casting a vote doesn’t become a financial burden.“Our whole country is not shut down right now–people can still go to the grocery store with certain protocols in place to make sure that people can do it while respecting social distancing and protecting the public health. We can do the same for in-person voting,” Brickner said.
“We also believe that some of the rigid requirements that sometimes disenfranchise voters also need to be addressed,” he adds, referring to the many opportunities for the state to reject mailed ballots because of small completion errors. “In Lucas County, Toledo, over fourteen hundred absentee ballot applications have already been rejected.”
These rejections don’t affect all voters equally. “People of lower socioeconomic status, African Americans, and Latino Americans historically have had their ballots rejected more often because of some sort of verification error,” Gronke said. “States are going to have to really work hard to make sure that none of these vulnerable populations are left behind.”
Ultimately, the question of mail-in voting is a central one for democracy in the time of coronavirus. Assuming COVID-19 is still shaping life in November—and all signs suggest this will be the case—will people in the Rust Belt and across the nation, like residents of Wisconsin, be forced to choose between their health and representation? So far, local leaders have begun taking steps to ensure broad voter access and limit mass gatherings at the polls. At the federal level, elections guidance is still up in the air.
And time is of the essence. “You can’t ignore the election. We know that the future is unpredictable and we don’t know what this global pandemic is going to do, but we’ve got to start preparing now. If we wait until September or October to make decisions about our election, it’s going to be too late.” Gronke said. “This is an extremely competitive presidential election. In the midst of a global health crisis, people are going to turn out however they can.” He hopes with the extra few months of lead time, states can avoid the mistakes made in Wisconsin’s last-minute response.
The list of necessary preparations is extensive–from designing mail-in paper ballots to minimize potential completion errors, to sourcing ballots and other materials from companies that have halted production or are operating on reduced staff, to dealing with complex contract required for the procurement of official governmental documents, all while continuing to move forward with staffing for in-person polling places. “You’re going from a face to face, in-person, service orientation to a direct mail operation. It’s like going from Walmart, something brick and mortar, to Amazon with no warning,” said Gronke.
In the meantime, Bricker, Lumpkin, and Maurer are working overtime to try to ensure that voter turnout doesn’t take a hit this year. For Maurer, that meant going door-to-door and hand-delivering ballot request forms to hundreds of houses in her ward. Brickner and his team have launched a text outreach campaign and are creating video explainers to virtually walk voters through the complexities of the vote by mail application. Cleveland Votes is manning a multilingual hotline for callers to request delivery of a vote-by-mail application to their home, and Lumpkin and her colleagues are working with a network of partners to check voter registrations in homeless shelters; they have developed a courier system, delivering vote-by-mail applications to residents and then back to the Board of Elections.
But civic organizations are stretched thin, attempting to replace an entire government voting apparatus in just weeks. “The heavy burden of communicating ways for people to be actively civically engaged is falling on nonprofits and volunteers,” Lumpkin said. “Our system has not been designed to make the process relevant, accessible, and reflective of all of the residents and community members across the state. However, the burden shouldn’t be on us, it should be embedded into our boards of elections and state administration.” ■
Kiran Misra is a journalist, policy researcher, and organizer working for the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome, Italy. She primarily covers Chicago’s civic systems and South Asian culture across America. You can find her on twitter here or online here.
Cover illustration by David Wilson.
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