The virus’s toll on our election system is already plain to see. Several states have postponed their primaries. In states that went ahead, voters increasingly were wary of going to the polls. Many states shut down polling places, moving them out of nursing homes and other places at risk. Many scrambled to find polling workers, as elderly volunteers chose not to risk their lives.
This problem isn’t going away. Nearly one-fourth of all voters in 2020 will be 65 or older — the very people who are most vulnerable to the virus and should be the most wary of going to crowded polling stations to cast their ballots. A majority of polling workers are over 60 years old. With the White House already warning against gatherings of 10 or more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending keeping a distance of six feet from others, and other states and cities considering joining California and New York in mandatory lockdowns, no one should pretend that we can run the remaining 2020 primaries and the general election as if it were business as usual.
Postponing the general election is not an acceptable alternative. We cannot do without legitimate leadership in this crisis. If Washington puts off acting and then at the last minute postpones the election, suspicion will build upon fear. And Washington will find itself bereft of the popular mandate needed to react boldly to the crisis. Enacting vote-at-home offers a way out.
Vote-at-home systems already exist in four states — Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii. Many other states have partial systems. Nearly one-fourth of all votes in the 2016 presidential election were cast by mail. That experience shows that voters like voting at home and, as a benefit, turnout in elections dramatically increases as a result.
A sensible vote-at-home system would simply provide a ballot — and a self-sealed envelope with prepaid postage — to every voter. (Special provisions would be made for voters, like many Native Americans, who lack post office addresses.) Early voting for a period of 20 or 30 days would allow voters time to make a decision. (For those who insist on voting in person, extended early voting would also limit lines and crowds at the polling stations.) Bar codes would let voters track their ballots. Mail registration and same-day registration would ensure that all can be registered.
The leaders who have been the clearest about what needs to be done in this crisis — the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Sens.// Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) among others — have all called for mandating a guaranteed system for voting at home. In the Senate, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 — introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and co-sponsored by 24 other senators — offers a good start, although it doesn’t call for providing all voters with a ballot, only offering one to those who apply. And on Monday, House Democrats announced that their latest coronavirus relief bill includes billions to shore up states’ election systems and mandates 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail — “including mailing a ballot to all registered voters in an emergency.”
Will Congress act now to address this clear and present danger to our elections and our democracy? Thus far, the administration and Senate Republicans — in keeping with past GOP campaigns of voter suppression — have refused to put election reform in the emergency legislation under consideration. But even Republicans have every good reason to mandate vote-at-home legislation: Elderly voters, who tend to vote more conservatively, will be the least likely to show up to vote in person.
In reality, a vote-at-home system, like many of the reforms mandated by the crisis — guaranteed health care, paid sick leave, expanded public health capacity, more universal and generous unemployment insurance, massive investment to rebuild the country and put people to work — should be permanent, not targeted or temporary. The crisis has already shown that this is imperative if our elections — the foundation of the Republic — are to survive the pandemic. Now is the time to force this long overdue reform into law.