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Make Electoral Democracy More Resilient

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fragility of the United States electoral voting system. Polling places, which are often densely packed indoor spaces, represent an acute public health danger. Yet, many states do not have the infrastructure in place to adapt to this situation, and it has thrown the health of Americans and our democratic institutions into doubt.

Right from the onset of this pandemic, several individuals and organizations raised alarms that the United States’ electoral system would have to radically adapt to coronavirus. Some states took this cue and pushed back their elections to buy time to implement alternative election systems or in hopes that COVID-19 would abate. Several other states, however, did nothing. Florida, which held its Democratic primary on March 17th, experienced a 53% drop in turnout from its turnout in 2016. Illinois which held its primary on the same day, saw a 61% drop in primary turnout.

States are still lagging on providing their residents with ways to vote safely during coronavirus. According to analysis from the Brooking Institute, 32 states received a C grade or lower on their performance providing residents with the ability vote-at-home during the pandemic. Alabama, which received an F grade as of writing, requires voters to have a notary or two witnesses to complete an absentee ballot. Connecticut, which received a D grade as of writing, does not offer no-excuse absentee voting, nor does it accept COVID-19 as a permitted reason to request an absentee ballot.

There is a solution to this dilemma: universal vote-at-home. Registered voters would receive a ballot in the mail automatically, without having to file an application or request one. Unlike traditional election procedures, universal vote-at-home allows Americans to vote from the safety of their households and then to return their ballot by mail or to drop in a secure drop box. This would give Americans the opportunity to carry out their democratic responsibility without putting them in harm’s way. Yet, very few states have the infrastructure currently in place to shift their electoral system to universal vote-at-home. Neither has Congress made this a priority.

Universal vote-at-home is not a novel idea. Five states – Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii and Colorado – currently have the proven capacity to conduct their elections without the need for physical polling locations. Dozens of other states have the proven capacity to allow a significant percentage of their citizens to vote-at-home, and few others have precedence for voting-at-home but only allow it in the most extreme of circumstances.

Congress should incentivize the remaining states to move to a universal vote-at-home model, not only for the upcoming election but for future elections as well. Based on estimates from the Brennan Center for Justice, the cost of expanding vote-at-home to all Americans runs from $982 million to $1.4 billion. While the short-run cost is not insignificant, research has shown that universal vote-at-home reduces the administrative costs related to running elections by 40%. This represents a long-term cost saving for states and all Americans.

Some officials and organizations have alleged that universal vote-at-home is more vulnerable to fraud than in-person voting, but the evidence does not support such claims. The decentralized nature of vote-at-home means that widespread fraud would require infiltrating the foundations of the decentralized electoral network 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 vote-at-home proves this point: Oregon, for example, had only 10 instances of voter fraud during the 2016 Presidential election.

In other words, allowing all citizens to vote from home will make our democracy more resistant to fraud as well as more resilient against national emergencies that threaten to impede our citizens’ basic right to vote.

With the evidence stacked against them, Republicans have resorted to other lines of argument to oppose vote-at-home. Sen. McConnell argued during the CARES Act debate that the proposed $2 billion in election grants would “federalize” states’ elections. Only $400 million in election grants were included in the final bill. President Trump also weighed in, saying “Mail ballots, they cheat. OK, people cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because there are cheaters” and tweeting “…[MAIL-IN VOTING] WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.” This alarmist tweet is not just anti-democratic, but wrong. In a working paper out of Stanford, a team of researchers took advantage of the staggered rollout of vote-at-home in California, Utah and Washington to show that while vote-at-home modestly improved overall election turnout, the additional turnout did not benefit any party disproportionality.

Never has it been more paramount that our democratic institutions preserve their trust between it and the American people. For a small investment – one that will likely pay off in the long-run – Congress can ensure that our elections are safe and secure not just for this November but for generations to come.

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