Voting should not require risking your health, or your life. But that’s the dilemma voters in Wisconsin faced last week and what, without a substantial commitment from political leaders, may well happen nationwide this fall come Election Day.
With COVID-19 very unlikely to be gone by November, going to election sites — either as a voter or a poll worker — might not feel like it’s worth the risk to many Americans, especially those in densely populated areas or from vulnerable groups. State and national lawmakers need to be hustling now to install workarounds. They have to make it easier to cast an absentee vote or move to voting almost entirely by mail, as five states already have. They also need to make sure in-person voting is as accessible and hygienic as possible for the substantial number of voters who lack reliable postal service. That might mean increasing the number of early-voting locations and the period of time they’re open.
The $2.2 trillion stimulus legislation passed in late March set aside $400 million for such purposes, but it’s not nearly enough. A detailed estimate from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School indicates that properly carrying out the 2020 election in this pandemic would require at least $2 billion in new funding.
To put the figures in perspective, $400 million probably wouldn’t even cover the cost of postage and envelopes for mailing ballots to voters, says Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center. States would still be on the hook for many other costly changes, like new equipment and software for scanning and processing mailed-in ballots and programs to educate voters on the new procedures. Mail-in voting is different from absentee voting, which requires voters to request a ballot and generally to provide a reason. States with widespread mail-in votes begin the process by mailing ballots to all voters.
States can pave the way for the fall by passing legislation or clarifying election rules to make widespread absentee voting possible without a cause. Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire last week announced that his administration would relax mail-in voting restrictions for his state in the likely event that the coronavirus still poses a threat; Massachusetts should follow New Hampshire’s lead. But nationwide, states acting alone are unlikely to be able to ensure mail-in voting can happen extensively because state budgets are being decimated by the economic fallout of COVID-19. Only the federal government has the financial flexibility to fill the gap.
Wisconsin’s election last week offered a warning of what will happen nationwide if things aren’t squared away. Perhaps nothing summed it up better than when the Republican speaker of the state Assembly, Robin Vos, volunteered at a polling place and asserted that voting was “incredibly safe.”
He said this while wearing a plastic gown, rubber gloves, and a surgical mask.
Vos said election organizers made him dress like that. But voters could be forgiven if they weren’t reassured by his words and stayed away — especially as shortages of poll workers led to huge reductions in the number of available polling places and hours-long lines in urban centers like Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, tens of thousands of Wisconsin voters didn’t have the option to vote absentee. Though some blame falls on the state’s Democratic governor for dithering on whether to try to delay the election or expand absentee balloting, ultimately his hands were tied by the Republican legislature, which refused to offer any flexibility. That led to another iconic image from the state: a voter waiting in a long line in Milwaukee, holding a sign that said, “THIS IS RIDICULOUS.”
Given the Republican Party’s fondness for various forms of suppressing voter turnout, Trump probably was voicing a widespread sentiment in the GOP when he said voting by mail would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” But even if we take other Republicans’ criticisms of vote-by-mail at face value, their objections don’t hold much water.
For example, opponents claim that mail-in ballots are likelier to be fraudulent. That ignores the fact that voter fraud is a virtually nonexistent problem nationwide. When Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington went to nearly universal voting by mail, no significant voter fraud problem emerged. Even Republican election officials in those states have acknowledged that. Voting by mail might even provide more protection, because election officials can verify signatures on those ballots and confirm voters’ addresses. Elections have proceeded just fine even as several states have loosened requirements for absentee voting, and at least 21 states have allowed votes by mail for local races and other smaller elections.
Another Republican argument is that Congress should leave it to individual states to run their elections. That would be a compelling point in normal situations. But this pandemic is forcing all kinds of temporary allowances into place. The government is mailing people money, delaying tax filings, forcing landlords to play nice, and putting environmental regulations on hold. Moreover, whether by passing women’s suffrage or the Voting Rights Act, the federal government has long held the authority to help secure the right to vote across the country.
With so much at stake this year, including the potential reelection of a president who has openly admitted to wanting to constrain the electorate and who has undermined our most hallowed institutions, it could not be more urgent to ensure that voters can exercise their constitutional right and have their votes counted safely and reliably. The national mid-term election of 1918, when turnout was an abysmal 40 percent during the influenza pandemic, should be a cautionary tale.
Financing a safe and practical version of a critical election is hardly radical, nor should it be partisan. Congressional leaders should keep pressing for more funding for mail-in voting in the next stimulus, and every state should clear the way for a widespread vote by mail.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.