Does Your State Allow Voting by Mail? Should It?

The U.S. Capitol can be seen in Washington, DC, March 23, 2020, as the Senate continues negotiations on an aid package in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, known as the coronavirus. The U.S. Capitol can be seen in Washington, DC, March 23, 2020, as the Senate continues negotiations on an aid package in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, known as the coronavirus.
Photo: Saul Loeb (Getty

While the effects of coronavirus continue to ripple in the United States and three of its territories, the debate about whether or not to expand voting options has exploded this year. States such as Georgia and Nevada have already moved to postpone primary games, while others that have come and gone have faced disruptions. All this has raised concerns that the November vote could also be affected by the virus in ways that could call into question the legitimacy of the next presidential election.

While the usual opposition to any attempt to expand voting options – conservative legislators often label such measures as a “federal government” takeover of the electoral powers conferred on states under the United States Constitution – two Senate Democrats are now leading charges against immediate instituting countermeasures in the Covid-19 event threatens to discourage voter participation. Senators Ron Wyden and Amy Klobucher, Democrats of Oregon and Minnesota, respectively, say offering the option to vote by mail is the only way to ensure that all Americans can participate. (Read the latest Gizmodo on the proposed law, now called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, here.)

Compounding cases, data collected by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) – the agency born in 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle to improve electoral administration – suggests that a majority of polls are over 60 years old (Age information 53 percent of polls show that 32 percent were between 61 and 70; 24 percent were 71 or older.) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults 65 and older are among them higher risk of serious illness.

On Thursday, the Brennan Center for Justice, a NYU policy institute, released a table showing where each state currently stands with its proposals, including making a vote by post option available to all U.S. voters for free. (Click here to view the table and here to view the center’s full list of recommendations.)

Currently, only five states hold elections entirely by mail – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. In these states, voters are not limited to participating in one “election day,” but receive ballot papers well in advance. Ballot papers are sent to voters to be completed, placed in special confidentiality envelopes, along with signed statements, and returned to the state. Other states offer email voting options, such as using absentee ballots, but only under certain circumstances, such as as a member of the military.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), postal voting offers clear advantages over using traditional polling stations, primarily convenience. Convenience can increase voter turnout, he said multiple studies. It can also save states a lot of money. A Research from 2016 quoted by the NCSL showed an average cost reduction of 40 percent in 46 of Colorado’s 64 counties (with the caveat that other reforms are also likely to have reduced costs on a smaller scale).

Disadvantages mentioned by NCSL include an impact on the voting tradition; the ‘civic experience’ of gathering at local schools and churches to participate. In addition, some Americans have problems receiving letters through the traditional postal system (colloquially “snail mail”). (In particular, the Wyden-Klobucher bill would require states to provide voters with a download option.) Many states would also need to purchase new equipment to scan paper ballot papers, which could be funded through grants under the Help America Vote Act, which is administered by the EAC. Counting the paper ballot papers may affect the rate at which results are reported, NCSL says.

With the general election just eight months away, security is a top concern. Kim Zetter, a well-known security journalist and author, reported for Politico last week, drastic changes in the country’s myriad electoral systems could pose “new risks and avenues for disruption,” with famous cryptographer Matt Blaze citing three areas of concern: security, reliability, and resource management. Zetter noted that advocates of immediate changes in light of the viral threat say the US may have little choice, given health officials’ forecasts that new infections may persist through fall.

According to the New York Times, the United States surpassed China as the nation with the most confirmed coronavirus cases, citing data collected by its reporters. To date, more than 1,000 people have died of the virus in the United States, where more than 81,300 cases are now known.

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