We can hold safe elections in November—here’s how we get started now

Voters fill out ballots at Riverside University High School during the presidential primary election, held amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Acker

We are living through an era of enormous challenges—slowing the coronavirus pandemic, finding medicines that could make it less lethal, finding a vaccine for it, and opening up an economy that has been moth-balled. In the midst of these challenges we must keep our democracy open and functioning. Frankly, in comparison to the huge threats we face, figuring out how to vote in November is not rocket science. Once we do, it will forever change the way we vote. In the past few months, we have learned from elections in the United States and around the world, and we will have at least six months to prepare. Every day we are learning how to keep going in a pandemic. For November’s election to go smoothly, all we need is political will.

To start with, the Republicans—and especially President Trump—have to abandon the idea that making it easier to vote is somehow going to help the Democrats. Recently the president said, referring to the Democratic bill in the House, “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Putting aside for the moment the ethical questions raised by keeping voters away from the polls because you might lose, there are empirical questions as well. Whether or not changes in voting and turnout will affect elections is a matter of great uncertainty. It’s an area where both political parties tend to cling to their myths. Democrats tend to think expanding the electorate always helps them, Republicans think it always hurts them. Nonetheless, a cursory review of scholarly studies on this topic is split; some find no bias, others find bias for Democrats and others find bias for Republicans. In other words, no one really knows.[1]

Expanding distance voting in 2020 could help older Americans vote who might otherwise be afraid to go to a crowded public place or it could help young women caring for children and holding down jobs who have trouble finding the time to get to the polls. In the end, Republicans have as much interest in making voting easy as do the Democrats.[2] Take, for instance, the ten states that do not permit early in-person voting. Five of those are Republican states—Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and South Carolina went for Trump four years ago and that are likely to do so again. Four are Democratic states: Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. One, Pennsylvania, is a toss-up state that went for Trump in 2016.

It is important to realize that the sooner this issue stops being partisan the faster states will start serious planning. Even if we manage to get back to some level of normal activity by the fall, many experts believe that there will be a second surge of the virus as the cold weather sets in—just in time for Election Day. Hopefully by then we will have more tests, more treatments, and more people who have had the virus and recovered without serious illness. But what we will most assuredly not have by then is a vaccinated and worry-free population. Planning now should begin as if we were still in the throes of the pandemic.

Given that, here’s a checklist of things states should be doing today.

1. Evaluate the possibility of all-mail ballots.

The first all-mail ballot elections were adopted in Oregon in 1998, followed by Washington state, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii. California has passed an all-mail ballot law for 2020, making it the largest state in the union to do so. However. unlike Oregon which automatically mails ballots to all registered voters, in California residents need to request a vote-by-mail ballot. All-mail ballots don’t necessarily guarantee that voters mail their ballots back. In fact, in the states that use them most people drop them off at a physical location such as local election office.

2. Amend laws to allow for no-excuse absentee balloting.

Absentee ballots are not new in the United States, even though for much of American history Americans voted on Election Day and Election Day only. The exceptions were in wartime when American soldiers were deployed away from home. As Tom Wheeler tells it, during the Civil War seventeen states changed their laws to allow soldiers who were away from home to vote. (Unfortunately, Illinois was not one of them and President Abraham Lincoln couldn’t vote for himself in 1864.)

In recent years, states that have not adopted all-mail voting have been making it easier to vote absentee by adopting what is known as “no-excuse” absentee balloting. To date thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia offer this to voters—anyone who wants an absentee ballot can get one without proffering a legally defined excuse. Those states who still require an excuse for an absentee ballot should call their legislatures into special session to amend the law and get rid of the impediments.

3. Set up early voting locations.

Another popular trend is to set up locations where voters can vote early. Thirty-six states plus the District of Columbia have done this in the past and will do it in the future. Early voting varies from state to state in how far ahead people can vote, but regardless of the date early voting offers not only convenience but reduces the number of people going through a polling place on Election Day.

A majority of states now have both no-excuse absentee voting and early voting. Only eleven states have neither one.

Early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting are fairly recent historically but they are already having a big impact on the way we vote, as the following chart from FiveThirtyEight shows. In the last national election we were down to a point where only 62% of the electorate was voting in person on Election Day. This trend is likely to continue. By the time November rolls around everyone, Democrats and Republicans, will be trying to harvest the early vote even if there isn’t a resurgence of the coronavirus. If there is another wave of the pandemic, even if it’s a mild one, civic groups and elected leaders all across the country will be doing what Mayor Muriel Bowser did recently in the District of Columbia. On March 27, 2020—two months before the June primary in D.C.—Mayor Bowser urged residents to get their “no-excuse” absentee ballots so that they could vote from home when the time came.

Chart showing the long-term, steady growth in popularity for early voting and absentee or mail voting.
Source: FiveThirtyEight

4. Establish a national goal of having half of all ballots completed without going to a polling place.

This is a realistic goal given the trend lines and the number of states (including some big ones like New York) that have recently joined the movement away from in-person, election-day voting. The coronavirus will certainly accelerate this trend, especially because even if we are getting back to normal, most experts expect the return to be gradual. Until there is a vaccine (not likely before November) many vulnerable people will be as reluctant to vote in person as they will be to go to a large concert or a crowded bar. Thus we will also need to take steps to make voting in person as safe as possible.

5. Make Election Day a national holiday.

At first glance this may look irrelevant to voting during a pandemic but in fact it’s quite relevant. Voting on a work day means that there are peak and off-peak hours at polling places. Early mornings and early evenings are crunch time when lines are likely to be long and social distancing difficult. Most of the other countries in the world hold their elections on a weekend or make it a national holiday and many of them have much higher turnout than the United States. If Election Day were a national holiday, people could vote throughout the day; states could even attempt to smooth out the traffic at polling places by suggesting that people vote throughout the day according to their birthdays or their license plate numbers. If asking Congress to make Election Day a national holiday is too much for a Republican Senate and president, governors have the authority to declare state holidays and they could do that in an effort to ease congestion at polling places.[3]

6. Use the knowledge accumulated during the lockdown to set up polling places.

No matter how ready we are for remote voting we will still need to keep as many polling places open as possible. We can do this by looking at all the ways we are adapting to this pandemic and use the same methods at polling places in November. For instance, our cars are becoming isolation units on wheels. We drive by restaurants to pick up carry-out food, we drive up to the grocery store to pick up groceries and we drive up to the drug store for prescriptions. During the April 7, 2020, primary in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, election officials allowed voters to stay in their car and drive by to pick up and then deposit their ballots. Here’s a tweet from city officials:

By November it should not be difficult to have: tape on the floors keeping voters six feet apart, plexiglass shields of the sort that we are now seeing in grocery stores to protect the poll workers, and surgical gloves and sanitizers at every polling place. In parliamentary elections held this past week, South Korean polling places used all of the above plus they had someone taking each voter’s temperature. And because this virus is so brutal to those who are older and those who have pre-existing conditions, states should begin to recruit poll workers who are younger and healthier and train them to do the job that has traditionally been done by retirees.

Just do it

The most recent aid bill passed by Congress appropriated $400 million to states to upgrade their election machinery. But a recent report by the Brennan Center suggesting many of the reforms detailed above put the price tag at $2 billion. During this critical period of our nation’s history, voting should be protected at all costs. We have time to prepare, and we have accumulated some knowledge and expertise about how it can be done. It is not rocket science. We need some more money but even more importantly we need political will. Our democracy depends on it. Just do it.

[1] For instance, Adam J. Berinsky, Nancy Burns and Michael W. Traugott, writing in Public Opinion Quarterly, found that vote by mail in Oregon “does not exert any influence on the partisan composition of the electorate.” However, Barry C. Burden, David T. Canon, Kenneth R. Mayer and Donald P Moynihan found that “Unlike Election Day registration, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the results show that early voting generally helps Republicans. We conclude with implications for partisan manipulation of election laws.” On the other hand, Ethan Kaplan and Haishan Yuan conclude, “We find substantial positive impacts of early voting on turnout equal to 0.22 percentage points of additional turnout per additional early voting day. We also find greater impacts on women, Democrats, independents, and those of child-bearing and working age.”

[2] This has already started.  Some Republican politicians are ignoring Trump and encouraging remote voting.

[3] The state of Virginia just did this.