Voting in the Time of Covid

By Mike Koetting April 24, 2020

I am very concerned that in the necessity of dealing with the immediate problems of the pandemic, we are unable to focus on the actual mechanics of voting in November, an election that will decide the fate of our democracy.

There is a high level of public concern about how safe voting in person will be. The prudent thing is to plan as if the pandemic were still raging. Hopefully that will be overkill, but the downsides are trivial in comparison to the problems of a chaotic election. As in Wisconsin.

But time is a monster enemy. We have to start right now to get ready for November. According to Nate Persily, a Stanford professor who specializes in election law, making any material change in our voting processes, especially if there is going to be a large scale move to voting by mail, requires at least six months.

More voting by mail would be the right response. There is a relatively high level of support for this process, although most polls show that Republicans tend to oppose. But at least one poll in battleground states showed even a slight Republican majority for mail-in voting.

To be sure, there are practical problems. There are more than 8,000 election jurisdictions in the country. This is insane, but is not going to be solved in the short term. Focusing at the state level will address most issues. There will also be some challenges in scaling up for places like New York, but that is why we need to start now.

Initial costs for voting by mail will be higher, but the numbers are not huge by federal standards. Moreover, while there are up-front costs, it’s not clear that the net cost is that much greater because of the corresponding reduction in the number of polling places.

Unsurprisingly, the real issues are political. Republicans will battle this at every turn, almost certainly disproportionate to any real problems.

Studies in those states that rely to a greater extent on mail voting show no structural advantage to one party or the other. Historic evidence also shows that mail-in ballots favor white and older voters, the bedrock of today’s Republican voters. Republican parties in many states have long had sophisticated programs for getting out absentee and other votes by mail ballots. What happened in Wisconsin, where a Democratic candidate beat a Republican candidate (although the election is technically non-partisan) with a large mail-in majority, is seen by most experts as an anomaly. What seems to make the most difference is how well a particular party is organized to use the process.

Regardless of what Republicans do on vote by mail, Democrats should push for more voting by mail. It is the right thing for the times, and perhaps for all time. As they do this, there are a number of things they need to keep in mind. But, by far, the most important is that for 2020 options are available only to the extent these issues are decided immediately. If the battles drag on into June, voting by mail will no longer be practical and any further time spent on it will distract from what Democrats otherwise need to do.

Other considerations include the following:

Mail voting will be messy

Democrats should not enter this struggle without understanding how hard it would be. While five states now have mostly mail-in elections, all have histories of “good government.” None of them have particularly large populations, and, most importantly, they get didn’t to their current capabilities overnight. It took each of them many years and multiple elections to transition from voting in person to voting by mail—exactly the opposite of what other states are now facing.

Nor is the decision simply opting for a mail vote. There are a whole set of other changes that will be necessary. How will citizens get ballots? How are those returned? How is integrity maintained? Most states also have laws about when votes can be counted, how they are to be counted, and when they can get reported. We must accept from the start is that it is unlikely that our current system of reporting election results will survive a largely mail-in ballot. If for instance the deadline for mail-in ballots to arrive was midnight, November 8, it could be two weeks before a reliable total was available. One of the ways of fighting the inevitable claims of fraud—particularly if a vote count takes longer—is to be realistic up front.

Mail-in voting does not guarantee turn-out

Voting by mail is not necessarily easier than voting in-person. A ballot has to be procured, completed and mailed in enough time to insure that it meets whatever deadline. Because this process has more discrete steps and can take place over a longer time period, the demands of educating an electorate on this process and getting compliance are greater than simply getting everyone to the polls on a specific day. Under any circumstances, turning out the mail-in vote, particularly in populations with lower connection to voting and no history of using mail-in ballots, would be challenging. Doing so under virus conditions will be even more difficult.

Republicans will continue efforts to suppress the vote

Republicans in many places promote an agenda that suppresses the vote of people who seem likely to vote against them. On more than one occasion, Republican leaders have been caught saying what seems to be the obvious truth: if everyone who is eligible to vote in fact voted, it would be infinitely more difficult for them to win.

Accordingly, Democrats need to be prepared to address any particular tactics that are designed to dissuade minority, poor, or younger voters. In a vote by mail process, very tight time deadlines and very rigid interpretations of identification requirements are likely spots for vote suppression.

But the biggest risk is switching to mail-in ballots without enough time to prepare. The ensuing chaos could give election officials enormous power over outcomes, not to mention having profound effects on who votes in the first place.

Democrats must be focused on the counter-attack

We know the courts are not going to help us. The current Supreme Court has chosen to reverse the precedent that the right to vote trumped the right of states to run elections any way they saw fit. If Democrats want to win, they must win under the prevailing rules, however awful they are.

Start with voter identification rules. Instead of hoping some court is going to overturn, Democrats have to be maniacal in understanding the rules and organizing to make sure people can and do follow them. This means starting now to make sure as many people as possible are properly registered, have proper ID and know what they have to do to vote. In some cases these requirements are deliberately absurd, such as requiring Indians to have a street address when there are no streets. But if this is the rule and we want those people to vote, we need to be getting street addresses on the reservation now. September is too late.

Stacey Abram’s Fair Fight Project is the right idea. We need teams in every state studying the rules, distilling the necessary steps, and coordinating with everyone to organize people to follow them. This is particularly important in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, but other states could be swing states. And even in states where there is no hope of electoral votes, there are down-ballot contests that are the key to the Senate and to state races that will determine future election rules.

Even before the pandemic, the right to vote was under attack. Covid-19 only makes the problem more complicated, and in some ways more urgent. We cannot afford to wait a single day to address this problem. But we need to be careful about spending too much time and energy trying to get a different system if that distracts from winning under the current system. On a day-by-day basis, the possibility of a significant but thoughtful change in any state’s voting system diminishes.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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