As the effects of coronavirus continue to ripple across the U.S. and three of its territories, the debate over whether to expand voting options this year has exploded. States such as Georgia and Nevada have already moved to postpone primary contests, while others that have come and gone have faced disruptions. All of this has given rise to fears that the November vote may also be impacted by the virus in ways that may call into question the legitimacy of the next presidential election.
While facing the usual opposition to any attempt to expand voting opportunities—conservative lawmakers often label such measures a “federal government takeover” of the election powers granted the states under the U.S. Constitution—two Senate Democrats are now leading the charge to institute immediate countermeasures in the event covid-19 threatens to dissuade voter participation. Specifically, Senators Ron Wyden and Amy Klobucher, Democrats of Oregon and Minnesota, respectively, say offering the capability to vote by mail may be the only way to ensure that all Americans can participate. (Read Gizmodo’s latest on the proposed bill, now called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, here.)
Compounding matters, data gathered by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC)—the agency born of the 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle to improve election administration—suggest a majority of poll workers are over the age of 60. (Age data on 53 percent of poll workers shows 32 percent were between 61 and 70; 24 percent were 71 or older.) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults 65 years and older are at higher risk for severe illness.
On Thursday, the Brennan Center for Justice, an NYU policy institute, published a table that shows where each state currently stand on its proposals, which include making a vote-by-mail option available to all U.S. voters, free of cost. (Click here to view the table and here to view the center’s complete list of recommendations.)
Currently, only five states conduct elections entirely by mail—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. In these states, voters aren’t limited to participating on a single “election day,” but instead receive ballots well in advance. Ballots are mailed to voters to be filled out, placed in special secrecy envelopes along with signed affidavits, and returned to the state. Other states offer vote-by-mail options, such as the use of absentee ballots, but only under particular circumstances, such as being a member of the military.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), voting by mail offers distinct advantages over the use of traditional polling locations, the first being convenience. Convenience may increase voter turnout, according to multiple studies. It could also save states a ton of money. A 2016 study cited by the NCSL showed a 40-percent average reduction in costs across 46 of Colorado’s 64 counties (with the caveat that other reforms likely reduced costs, too, in more minor ways).
Disadvantages cited by the NCSL include an impact on the tradition of voting; the “civic experience” of gathering at local schools and churches to participate. Additionally, some Americans have trouble receiving letters using the traditional postal system (colloquially, “snail mail”). (Notably, the Wyden-Klobucher bill would require states to provide voters with a download option.) Many states would also be required to purchase new equipment capable of scanning paper ballots, funding for which could be obtained through grants under the Help America Vote Act, which is administered by the EAC. Counting the paper ballots could impact the speed with which results are reported, NCSL says.
With the general election only eight months away, security is a chief concern. Kim Zetter, a noted security journalist and author, reported for Politico last week that drastic changes to nation’s myriad election systems could pose “new risks and avenues for disruption,” with renowned cryptographer Matt Blaze citing three areas of concern: security, reliability, and resource management. Zetter noted that advocates of instituting immediate changes in light of the viral threat say the U.S. may have little choice given projections by health officials that new infections may continue through fall.
According to the New York Times, the U.S. has surpassed China as the nation with the most confirmed coronavirus cases, citing data amassed by its reporters. Over 1,000 people have died from the virus so far in the U.S., which now hosts more than 81,300 known cases.