To Save Lives, and Democracy, We Need to Vote by Mail

For many Americans, vote-by-mail will be a matter of life and death come November.

In a pandemic, it is immoral to force voters to choose between their health and their freedom to vote. And it is immoral to knowingly trigger a major outbreak of the coronavirus when the damage can be limited with a few procedural changes.

To be specific, we need to maximize the use of mailed-in ballots. This is the most practical way to minimize in-person voting, making it possible to implement the social distancing and sanitizing necessary to resist spreading infection.

We also need to minimize in-person voting, because most of the elderly people who staff polling places will, sensibly, not work during the pandemic. It will be impractical, and in many places impossible, to safely conduct the election in 2020 unless the numbers voting on Election Day are greatly reduced.

More than 136 million Americans voted in 2016. Of these, about 80 million (nearly 60 percent) voted at the polls on Election Day. We need 40 to 60 million of those to vote early or mail their votes next time.

It is true that almost all of the presidential swing states allow no-excuse-required absentee voting. By law, any registered voter who asks for an absentee ballot in these states should get one in the mail.

But absentee voting doesn’t really solve the problem.

Lower-income Americans and people of color are less likely to request an application to vote absentee. They tend to have little experience with absentee voting and many have no access to the Internet to apply online or download a PDF application. The applications themselves can often be prohibitively complicated, too.

Most of those problems would be solved if state or county authorities mailed an already-filled-in application to every registered voter. The Board of Elections already has the information requested on the application — all they need is a signature. And the form could include a personalized barcode to help election officials automate the process of building the absentee list.

That makes sense if it’s the best you can get from your state. But it would be simpler and cheaper to simply mail a ballot to every registered voter — a vote-by-mail system.

The reality is, because of the pandemic, election boards will be flooded with absentee voting applications in 2020, far more than they’ve ever handled before. Sending a ballot to every voter is likely to be more practical for officials to accomplish than dealing with millions of new absentee applications one-by-one.

In fact, five states have vote-by-mail already, and fraud is nearly non-existent.

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 72 percent of Americans, including 79 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans, want the government to require mail-in ballots for the November election if the coronavirus still threatens the public this autumn.

And it will still threaten us then. That means now is the time to forcefully advocate for voting-by-mail so Americans can participate in our great democracy without risking their lives.

Bernie Horn is Senior Director for Policy and Communications at the Public Leadership Institute.