How we can keep democracy and voters safe during coronavirus
Avoid large crowds. Don’t stand closer than 6 feet from someone. Avoid touching public surfaces.
This is the guidance from the CDC on how to avoid coronavirus, “flatten the curve,”and ensure the safety of our most vulnerable populations.
Yet amidst the worst pandemic we’ve seen in decades, Americans are receiving mixed messages around whether to proceed with one of the most fundamental elements of our society: free and fair elections.
Across the country, governors and secretaries of state have been scrambling, struggling to figure out how to best manage an election where just the mere act of voting could put lives at risk. Poll watchers (who tend to be older and thus, most vulnerable) are dropping out as they self isolate. Voters are themselves debating how critical it is for them to show up in long poll lines as they wait to vote.
In order to protect voters and our democracy, states must institute policies that allow voters to safely cast ballots from home.
In order to protect voters and our democracy, states must institute policies that allow voters to safely cast ballots from home. In the age of social distancing and quarantine, allowing voters to vote at home (as absentee voters) is the only way to ensure we fulfill our obligations to each other and our democracy.
In full “vote by mail” systems, all voters are mailed a ballot to their homes. They can fill out their ballot from home (even in front of a computer, if they’d like). When they’re ready to complete their voting process, they can either drop the ballot off in the mail or at a secure ballot drop-off location -- an activity which requires significantly less close-quarters interaction than waiting at a polling station.
Already, balancing public health and safety with democratic values is causing major headaches in a number of states; Ohio shut polling locations down shortly after they opened Tuesday morning, while Arizona and Illinois shuttered certain polling stations after poll watchers failed to show up for their shifts.
If left unresolved, thousands of voters may be disenfranchised. States need to act now to ensure a seamless and safe election day.
Four states -- Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii -- have full vote at home systems, in which all voters are automatically mailed ballots. Another three states (Utah, California, and Nevada) let counties decide whether to mail ballots. In 25 states (plus DC) voters will have to either request a no-excuse absentee ballot; in the other 18 states, voters must submit an excuse for an absentee ballot.
In times of unprecedented crisis, leaders and legislators must do what’s best for their citizens, which means expanding the excuses acceptable to receive a ballot or ideally removing the need for an excuse altogether.
Further, these states must ensure that those who are voting absentee from home have the time to get their ballots in and counted; either expanding the amount of time that counties have to count ballots or expanding the window that absentee ballots can be received are all important measures that states can take to ensure that voters are enfranchised while doing what’s best for themselves and their communities. To meet the increase in demand for mailed ballots, election administrators will need dedicated funding to properly count and report results in a timely fashion.
Coronavirus is an incredibly serious public health concern. States need to act now to protect their citizens and their democracies.
Unite America and our partners are taking action. For more information, connect with:
Represent Us - How to vote during the coronavirus outbreak
National Vote at Home Institute - Policy support for scaling up voting options across the country
Voting Rights Lab - Learn more about what vote at home looks like
Center for Secure and Modern Elections - How vote at home keeps voting safe and secure