Prof. Kimberly Clausing and Prof. Paul Gronke
Prof. Kimberly Clausing and Prof. Paul Gronke
Social Sciences

Save Democracy. Vote By Mail.

States should let citizens cast their votes without ever visiting the polling station.

Prof. Kimberly Clausing and Prof. Paul Gronke | May 11, 2020

As our society endures deep public health and economic crises, it is vitally important to protect democracy itself from the ravaging effects of this pandemic. Voting is the most singular democratic act, and it is imperative that the national vote go smoothly in November 2020. 

Already, the coronavirus has created serious voting disruption. Sixteen states have delayed their primaries due to the coronavirus, while others have made last minute changes to voting procedures. Controversies about the Wisconsin vote even went as far as the Supreme Court. Although the coronavirus has interfered with the normal operations of the Supreme Court, they issued a decision requiring the vote to go ahead, and Wisconsin voters were made to choose between public health and democratic expression.

At the same time, local, state, and national leaders are making policy decisions that will have ramifications for years if not decades. Ensuring that our governing institutions have democratic legitimacy is especially important during a crisis. Luckily, there are voting technologies that are easily adaptable to our present situation. Many states already vote by mail or allow no-excuse absentee balloting. Mandating no-excuse absentee voting for all federal elections is both feasible and desirable.

We have no idea how long this coronavirus will be present in the US population. We have an integrated national economy and free flows of people between US states. The very freedoms that have made American democracy the envy of the world is a point of vulnerability in this crisis. The fifty states have adopted wildly different policy responses in the face of this crisis. The federal government has been reluctant to invoke emergency powers. Because of our slow and uncoordinated response, our health trajectory has been more like Italy’s than those of South Korea or Japan. While these countries are all democracies, some have contained the public health crisis more effectively than others.

Because of our weak and incoherent national strategy, coronavirus will remain a threat to the health of United States citizens for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this means that the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, may feel the need to self-isolate for a long time. We are also not certain if there will be more waves of this virus in the fall or beyond.

It is thus absolutely crucial that all voters, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or income status, have free and equal access to the ballot box. This means we need to look to voting technologies and methods that enable everyone to exercise this essential democratic right. No one should have to choose between their health and their right to vote. 

Of course, unequal access to voting isn’t just an issue due to the pandemic. Citizens are often forced to make difficult tradeoffs when they vote. Sickness comes at all times, and the realities of busy work lives, childcare obligations, long commutes, and multiple jobs can make voting difficult for many. There is no reason why one of the richest nations on earth should make voting so hard.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Oregon, not only are voters automatically registered, but the ballot reaches us weeks before Election Day, courtesy of the US Postal Service. Voters have all the time they need to read the details of ballot measures and to research candidate positions. They can vote at a time that suits their schedule, and they need not encounter any hazards, health or otherwise, to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. There is no evidence of voting fraud in Oregon, or systematic exclusion of any vulnerable or disempowered segments of the population.

It would take time to extend such a system nationwide, and it will require resources, as there are a host of logistical issues. At a minimum, however, States should meet the challenge of today’s voting climate by having a strategy in place to conduct elections under poor health conditions. This could include extending voting periods by many days to allow voters to spread out over time, expanding existing absentee ballot options (including accepting an expressed desire to self-isolate as an excuse for an absentee ballot), allowing no-excuse absentee balloting with the option to be put on a permanent list across all states, and where feasible, making a full transition to vote-by-mail. 

The next coronavirus relief bill (and yes, there will be more legislation) should include the necessary funding to prepare our elections for all contingencies. This means adequately funding the serious resources required for additional equipment, materials, election training, and staffing. Senator Amy Klobuchar and our own Senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, have a bill that would do just that.

Smooth elections are essential to vital democracies. Now more than ever, we need to invest the necessary resources to ensure that the 2020 election is smooth and safe for all Americans.

Kimberly Clausing is an economist and the author of Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration and Global Capital. Paul Gronke is a political scientist and the director of the Early Voting Information Center.

Tags: Covid-19, Professors, Research