The Case for a Universal Mail-In Ballot American democracy was already on a knife’s edge before COVID-19 came on the scene.

As 2020 dawned the U.S. Senate was still debating whether to remove President Trump from office. Political divisions were at an all-time high and progress gridlocked on the momentous challenges we face – slowing global climate change, transforming our economy to meet human needs, ending America’s wars abroad, and fighting the rise of authoritarian nationalism at home and around the globe.

Partisan attacks have already corroded the national consensus on core democratic values. They have devalued our free press, disrupted important institutional traditions, and demeaned evidence as a basis for policy making. As a result, the November 3 elections may be a make or break deal for American democracy. That is why in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic we must do everything in our power to assure this fall’s election not become mired in controversy or suffer from low participation.

Theoretically that should be easy. Voters and communities needn’t choose between good public health practices and their right to vote. Making voting as simple, efficient and sanitary as possible during a time of communicable, life-threatening disease is an obvious and non-partisan priority. Whether you vote Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green or something else, you should be able to do so without putting your health on the line.

Five states, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah, have already moved to 100 percent mail-in voting. These states are probably the best positioned to conduct fair voting and can be an example to other states which have just months to catch up.

In addition to the five full mail-in ballot states, another 28 states (and the District of Columbia) allow “no excuse” absentee voting, meaning that all voters are eligible to apply for a mail-in ballot should they take the initiative to do so.

It is critical that we push hard now to register ourselves and make sure everyone in our community has the information and motivation to do the same. Many states are unprepared for the likely surge in mail-in (or so-called absentee) voting and may need to devote additional staff and resources to make things work. If mail-in ballot applications start surging now it will signal voting officials and state legislators of the need to fund the changes necessary to speedily and accurately tabulate millions of mailed-in ballots.

We have nearly five months and the need is urgent. We can make this work if everyone has the same goal of keeping democracy alive during a national emergency. But of course, there lies the problem. Parties and candidates who have historically thrived by keeping voter turn-out low are not keen on expanding our right to vote. That means they will oppose making mail-in voting easier and more
available even if that means risking the health of millions.

President Trump has made various statements opposing an expansion of mail-in voting saying “Republicans should fight very hard” to prevent “state wide mail-in voting.” He dismissed efforts to
facilitate safe voting in harshly partisan terms saying, “Democrats are clamoring for it.” He then repeated the discredited trope that mail-in voting opens, “tremendous potential for voter fraud”.

Democracy works best when every voter can vote. We are hoping for a virus- free election in which no one is afraid to cast a vote, work at a polling place, canvas door-to-door, or volunteer to drive voters to the polls. We hope polling places can be open because some people (like me) prefer that. I like being around people who are exercising their freedom. But this year it may not happen that way. At least in some places, mail-in voting may be the only safe alternative.

Ted Lewis is the Human Rights
Program Director at Global Exchange.

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