Expanding Postal Voting to Preserve Democratic Institutions During the COVID-19 Crisis
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States has caused an untold amount of economic, political and social disruption. Trillions of dollars in economic activity has been lost, and in the first week of the crisis 3.3 million workers reported being laid off1. These reported numbers are only expected to increase in the coming days, weeks and months. This is because social distancing remains the primary strategy to prevent the spread of the virus, keeping economic activity depressed as a result. While policymakers and society at large have accepted the tradeoff – forsaking the economy for the sake of public health – the effects of social distancing are far broader than just the economic effects. Democratic institutions themselves are also threatened.
The United States is currently amid “primary season” where every state and territory in the United States holds elections to allow voters to choose the presidential candidate for their respective party. Some states hold local elections on the ballot during this time as well. However, these elections have been thrown into doubt as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States. There is good reason to be worried; these elections represent a unique threat to public health. However, action needs to be taken to ensure that the legitimacy of these elections is not jeopardized.
The United States’ primary elections present a significant public health risk for several reasons. Polling places are often crowded well-above the current Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance to limit social gatherings to no more than 10 people at a time2. In addition, polling machines are a clear transmission vector for the virus, unless they are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each use.
Most stark are the public health risks the inherent demographics of primary elections present. COVID-19 has a case fatality rate of 3.6% for those aged 60-69, 8.0% for those between 70-79 and 14.8% for those 80 or older3. These case fatality rates are relevant because primary voters skew far older than the general population: 24% of the primary electorate up until this point in the primary season has been age 65 or older4. For comparison, that age group represents only 15% of the total population of the United States5. Officials also commonly locate public polling places within nursing homes. In Ohio alone, more than 140 polling places were in nursing homes before the primary was rescheduled6. This mix of elderly turnout, polling location placement and the case fatality rate amongst the elderly should raise concern with election officials and lawmakers.
Despite the public health risk, preserving democratic institutions is an important part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. The two facets of this crisis – public health and the economic aspects – both rely on a high degree of trust between the government and private actors to coordinate an effective response. When the government issues stay-at-home orders, as many states already have, business owners and individuals must (1) trust that the government has the authority to carry out said orders and (2) be assured that the government will provide some level of economic support to reduce the harm caused by these measures. Spoiling election integrity during this crisis would be detrimental to the fragile coordination required to carry-out these important measures.
Cancelling the primary elections outright may be tempting, especially if a clear frontrunner emerges. However, cancelling these primary elections would forever brand the eventual nominee, and possibly the next President of the United States, as being the product of a tainted electoral process. Strong, respected authority is needed to maintain the fragile coordination the government is undertaking with private actors. It is unlikely that a year from now that the United States will be completely recovered from COVID-19 and the recession that has accompanied it. Respected leadership and strong institutions are necessary to continue to lead the country out of this crisis.
What we should do
Voting during the COVID-19 pandemic represents a two-pronged issue: carrying out elections could result in a spike of cases of COVID-19 and cause subsequent fatalities; cancelling elections, however, is not the appropriate response. The health and trustworthiness of our democratic institutions could not be valuable than it is now. This is where postal voting (also known as vote-by-mail) presents states with a novel solution to solve both problems.
Postal voting is the concept of mailing election ballots to voters rather than requiring voters to be physically present at an official polling place in order to cast their votes. With postal voting, voters can request a ballot, often available online, from election officials who then mail a ballot to those who request one. Voters then have up until a predetermined date to mail their filled-in ballot back to election officials or place it in a secured drop-off location. Both methods greatly minimize human contact that comes along with traditional voting measures.
Expanding postal voting to all Americans is no small task. Only five states – Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii and Colorado – currently have the proven capacity to allow all their citizens to vote by mail. The remaining 45 states and territories have postal voting laws that vary wildly, ranging from opt-in provisions that allow some counties to administer election by mail, to other states that bar postal voting except for in the most extreme circumstances7.
Building out the capacity to move the remainder of the primary election process, and potentially the 2020 general election process, to postal voting will require the coordination of officials from the local level all the way up to the federal level. Luckily, several states have already begun to roll out initiatives due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After delaying their March 24th primary, Georgia announced plans to mail absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters ahead of the rescheduled May 19th primary8. Ohio cancelled its March 17th primary and will give registered voters until April 28th to request an absentee ballot and mail it in9. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), including financing to carry out measures like these. The CARES Act includes $400 million dollars in election grants assisting states to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”10
The CARES Act does not specify how exactly the election security grants should be spent to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” However, states would be best advised to use the grants to implement postal voting for this election cycle. The funding provided by the CARES Act will go a long way in helping implement this policy, but it will not fulfill the entire budgetary need for the program. Based on estimates from the Brennan Center for Justice, the cost of expanding postal voting to all Americans runs from $982 million to $1.4 billion11. To offset these costs, states should redirect existing election appropriations to implementing postal voting that otherwise would have been used to run in-person election this cycle. In addition, Congress should include additional election security grants in the fourth stimulus bill that is widely expected to be introduced. Congress should specify that these election security grants be used only to implement postal voting.
States will also have to revise their voter registration rules to accommodate the shift to postal voting. Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia have implemented online voter registration12. Of the remaining 11 states, potential voters must request a voter registration form be mailed to them or visit a government office in-person in order to register to vote. Based on Brennan Center estimates, implementing online voter registration for the remaining 11 states will cost just $3.7 million13.
While the short-run will require significant cooperation and investment in order to move the entire electoral system from in-person to postal voting, large long-run benefits should be anticipated from this policy. Research has shown that postal voting reduces the administrative costs related to running elections by 40%14.
Some officials and organizations have warned that postal is more vulnerable to fraud than in-person voting, the evidence makes it clear that is not true15. The decentralized nature of postal voting means that widespread fraud would require infiltrating the postal system itself, while in-person voter fraud requires only the infiltration of a singular machine or ballot box within a centralized network. The track record of states with postal voting proves this point: Oregon, for example, had only 10 instances of voter fraud during the 2016 Presidential election16.
If there was ever a time to move the nation’s voting process from in-person to mail-in, it would be now. A democratic and public health need for such a process is clear, and the financing and political will are available to execute such policy.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented risk to the public health, economy and democratic institutions of the United States. The usual approach is no longer applicable, and novel solutions must be created in order to ensure that our recovery from this crisis is swift. The health of the electoral system is one of those prerequisites to recovery, and postal voting presents a solution to an impending problem for state lawmakers.