Wisconsin’s election revealed how difficult it will be to stage traditional, in-person voting. Voters come into close contact with one another as they wait in line and check in. And polling workers are also disproportionately senior citizens, a group that is especially susceptible to getting seriously ill from covid-19. Together, these two factors meant there were many fewer polling places open Tuesday, and those people who did want to vote often had to stand in line for hours.
Democrats generally want to avoid these problems by requiring all states to allow people to vote by mail in the fall election. While most states already offer no-excuse absentee voting by mail, many do not, including the important swing state Pennsylvania. Proponents believe making this mandatory will ensure that all people have the ability to vote this fall. Many also believe this will help Democrats, as mail balloting could make voting easier for groups that have low propensities to vote, such as racial and ethnic minorities and young adults.
Many Republicans are resistant to this. They rightly worry about ballot security in mail-in elections, especially if proposals to allow what conservatives call “ballot harvesting” are included in the law. The practice allows people to collect ballots from strangers and deliver them to the polls or the post office, and Republicans fear that this could give rise to voter intimidation or other nefarious practices. They also have the partisan concern that raising voter turnout could harm their chances of winning for the same reasons Democrats think they will be advantaged.
The partisan concerns are likely overblown. The United States is not that far behind similar countries in voter turnout. Neither Canada nor Britain force people to vote, or hold elections on weekdays. They had elections last year and their turnouts — 66 percent for Canada, 67 percent for Britain — weren’t much higher than the 60 percent in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Studies also show that easy mail voting only increases overall turnout by a few percentage points. Even if those new voters tilted Democratic, the overall gain would only change the outcome in the closest of races.
But there’s also good reason to believe Republicans could benefit as much or more from higher turnout as Democrats. That’s because the post-Trump GOP gets the bulk of its votes from whites without four-year college degrees, and they turn out at much lower rates than whites with college degrees. Battleground states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have large numbers of non-college-graduate whites and relatively few nonwhites and culturally liberal youths. Even Southeastern swing states such as Florida and North Carolina have large numbers of nonvoting, non-college whites. In those places, a mail-ballot-induced turnout hike could benefit President Trump and the Republicans on net.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t genuine concerns to be raised with respect to mail voting. States that allow “ballot harvesting” provide serious temptation for bad actors to engage in voter fraud. Indeed, in the 2018 midterm elections in North Carolina, a Republican operative was charged with collecting mail ballots unmarked from unwitting voters and casting their votes for a Republican congressional candidate. That example alone should cause all voting-rights advocates to eschew such an inherently problematic method.
People of good will, however, should be able to reach compromises to come up with a plan to prevent the coronavirus from impacting the fall election, and that could go beyond mail-in voting. Special privileges regarding pay and time off from work could encourage middle-aged people to become temporary poll workers. National Guard troops can be trained in advance to be emergency poll workers, and gear can be pre-purchased so those poll workers are protected from contracting or spreading the virus. Early in-person voting can be encouraged over the mail ballot alternative, and government-paid voter-ID cards can be produced and mailed to those who don’t already have picture IDs. Thumb-print identification is already available on newer smartphones; that technology can be ramped up and applied for newly registered voters to assuage concerns about fraud from late or same-day registrants.
November’s election is already likely to be vicious. That makes it crucial that both sides prepare to ensure the process itself is inclusive and trustworthy. An efficient, inclusive and secure voting system is the only known vaccine against extreme partisanship. Both sides should ensure that one is produced before it’s too late.