Policymakers search for ways to safeguard the right to vote during COVID-19 social distancing

April 13, 2020 12:01 am

Election official with voting stickers at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury)

Ohio bills itself as “the heart of it all.” And for good reason. It’s as much a crossroads of America as any state can be.

It ranges from the distinctly southern folkways and accents at its southern tip near Ironton (ARN’ton to locals), to a distinctly upper Midwestern point of view in places like Toledo and along Lake Erie.

“It’s the farthest north of the South, the farthest south of the North, the farthest east of the West and the farthest west of the East,” then-Gov. Richard F. Celeste boasted back in the mid-1980s.

Politically, Ohio is an important and reliable bellwether. It’s beyond coincidence that no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying the Buckeye State.

So it was jarring last month that Ohio’s Republican governor – citing the public health threat posed by the COVID-19 outbreak – summarily postponed the state’s Democratic presidential primary the evening before it was scheduled.

It happened in reverse last week in Wisconsin. Mayors of that state’s largest cities asked their leaders to follow other states that had either pushed back April primaries or opted for balloting by mail rather than defy home-sheltering guidance and subject hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites to the contagion.

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, sought to reschedule the election for June, but Republican legislative leaders blocked him, rushing first to the state Supreme Court and then the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative majority prevailed in a 5-4 ruling supporting the GOP’s position that the election not be delayed. Voters, spacing themselves apart to observe social distancing, queued in lines that stretched for blocks outside the few polling places that opened for Tuesday’s primary.

Larry J. Sabato, who has spent a lifetime studying national elections as a University of Virginia political science professor and director of its Center for Politics, said the prospect of one party using its power to disrupt the other party’s primary is unprecedented and outrageous. It also demonstrates the imperative for states to develop ways to ensure the continuity of the most fundamental act of a democratic republic.

The coronavirus presents a challenge unlike any other disaster. A massive late-season hurricane, for example, could imperil elections in Atlantic or Gulf coastal states, as Hurricane Sandy did in New York and New Jersey days ahead of the 2012 presidential election. But the worsening pandemic that has already killed nearly 20,000 Americans in the past month has effectively shut down all 50 states at once.

The nation has found itself woefully unprepared in almost every area to respond, whether it’s insufficient COVID-19 testing capacity, a dire shortage of personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks for frontline healthcare professionals, and too few ventilators that hospital intensive care units need to keep the sickest patients alive.

Turns out, our elections infrastructure is also hopelessly vulnerable with no Plan B.

Mail-in voting is one idea getting attention. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – allow mail voting in all elections while 21 states allow some form of it for local elections such as school boards. For those elections, registered voters are sent ballots by mail well in advance. Those who choose to vote by mail rather than in person at a polling place fill the ballot out, put it in a secrecy envelope and then put all of it into a self-addressed return envelope that the government provides, signs an affidavit on the outside of the envelope and either mails it back or takes it to a  local registrar.

Vote-by-mail is an alternative that allows Americans to participate in elections during a time of widespread home-sheltering. Unlike voting online, it is impervious to computer hacking and leaves an essential paper record of each ballot cast. It requires states and local governments to act farther in advance to finalize ballots, get them into the hands of registered voters for a long window of time and return them before polls close on election day.

”It’s not like you’re working out a completely novel system,” said Sabato, a proponent of expanded by-mail balloting. “There are already five states with it – some with many years of operation. Paper ballots are a safe way to have elections. Go look at those five states and see the safeguards they have in place.”

There are political and practical obstacles to putting by-mail voting into place in time for the November general election. States, which are responsible for carrying out elections, would have to act separately, and not all of them – particularly those under GOP control – find the idea palatable. A notable exception is Utah, a reliably red state that allows mail-in ballots. Among mail voting’s Republican detractors is President Donald Trump, who calls it “corrupt” even though he voted by mail in the 2018 midterm elections in Florida, his primary residence.

“Mail-in voting has a lot of pitfalls. How many times have you had mail misdelivered?” said state Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, and a longtime member of legislative committees that oversee Virginia election law. “It just lends itself to too much mischief and voter fraud.”

Another major worry surfaced Friday when U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., warned that because of a sharp drop in mail volume from the pandemic, the U.S. Postal Service will not survive the summer without emergency funding from Congress.

One mail voting concern is “ballot harvesting,” in which volunteers or organized workers collect ballots from individual voters and take them to registrars’ offices or polling places. Most states allow ballots to be gathered and returned only by narrowly defined individuals, usually close relatives or people specifically designated by the voter.

Defenders say that broadly opening the process of gathering ballots from voters and returning them for counting empowers more people such as the elderly, poor or minorities to vote. Opponents say it risks ballot security, noting that partisan or activist harvesters could collect ballots from voters known to be favorable to their party or candidates and discard those from an adversary’s supporters. Such harvesting in 2018 by a Republican congressional candidate’s operative  prompted North Carolina to void the Republican’s narrow victory and order a new election. In California, where harvesting is legal, Republicans blamed late-arriving “harvested” ballots for several GOP incumbent losses that year.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, used his executive authority last week to delay the June 9 congressional primaries by two weeks. He is asking the General Assembly, in its April 22 reconvened session, to reschedule May municipal elections for November, adding May’s races to the general election ballot.

Earlier this year, Virginia passed reforms to ease ballot access after Democrats seized control of the House and Senate in the 2019 election. The requirement that voters bring IDs to the polls was scrapped, and absentee balloting was liberalized to eliminate a requirement that voters choose one of a limited number of reasons they can’t vote in person on election day in applying to vote absentee. Absentee ballots can be returned by mail but differ from mail voting in that absentee ballots are sent only upon a voter’s request.

For logistical and political reasons, vote-by-mail appears unlikely in Virginia this year. Northam, in a recent media briefing, said greater use of absentee voting is one way to carry out Virginia’s 2020 elections. House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, through a spokesman, declined to discuss voting and options for this year’s elections.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]