Since mid-March, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has significantly altered life for people around the U.S. and the world. These major disruptions have led to changes in the U.S. election calendar and process. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has pushed their convention back until the week of August 17, and 16 states have postponed their primaries out of public health concern.
While I applaud these decisions, we cannot plan to just push elections back until COVID-19 gets better. Georgia has already had to postpone their primary twice. Some June primaries have even been delayed to July. At this point, we really have no clue when social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders will end, and we can neither allow elections to proceed normally nor delay our democratic process.
Elections are important. Though Joe Biden is now the Democratic party’s presidential nominee, primaries and the convention must still take place in order for him to be legitimate. Important state and local offices need to be filled. In Baltimore City, for example, voters will be nominating candidates for mayor, City Council president, city council seats and city comptroller. It’s possible that our society will not have returned to normal by November, and the U.S. cannot simply postpone the election for our only national office.
Fortunately, Maryland has taken the lead on this issue. The June 2 primary will occur primarily by mail, with at least one in-person polling station per county for those who cannot fill out a mail ballot due to a disability or for those who do not receive a mail ballot in time. This plan is the safest way to ensure our elections remain free and fair, and it should be adopted on a national level.
By contrast, some states have not developed efficient strategies for voting during the pandemic. On April 7, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin and the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) required the state to hold their elections as planned, striking down an emergency order by Governor Tony Evers to push the elections back to June in light of public health concerns.
After the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that the governor lacked authority to take such an action, SCOTUS considered one aspect of the lower court’s ruling: to extend the state’s deadline for absentee ballots. In a party-line vote of 5-4, the unsigned majority opinion ordered that the deadline not be extended on the basis of precedent against changing rules close to an election. They also cited a lack of evidence that voters requesting absentee ballots would be in a “substantially different position” than during normal elections.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the fiery dissenting opinion, it is clear that the current situation in Wisconsin and around the country is, in fact, substantially different from the norm. The decision by SCOTUS disenfranchised those who had not received their absentee ballot by election day, including 12,710 requested ballots that were not even mailed. Hundreds to thousands of ballots received by the deadline may not be counted, since they lack a postmark required by the SCOTUS decision. A federal lawsuit was already filed alleging that the election was unfair, and calling for a re-vote.
The people of Wisconsin knew their election was being manipulated by elected officials, so they voted them out. Incumbent Daniel Kelly, a conservative justice who helped issue the state Supreme Court decision, was unseated by liberal challenger Jill Karofsky in a landslide victory. She won the election by over 163,000 votes. It’s worth noting that a supreme court seat race last year was decided by a margin of fewer than 6,000 votes.
This election shifts the conservative majority on the court from 5-2 to 4-3. The results from Wisconsin were a clear rebuff to the Republican-led efforts against making the election more accessible.
Wisconsin is just one example that illustrates why the U.S. must tailor elections to be as fair as possible during COVID-19. In-person turnout for primaries held on March 17 in Florida, Arizona and Illinois was down by more than 100,000 in each state compared to the 2016 presidential primaries.
One proposed solution for remote elections is online voting. While this may sound straightforward enough, especially given that American astronauts have been able to vote digitally from space since 1997, there are some serious problems with online voting.
Given possibilities of election interference with our current system, ballot security is a major concern. In 2010, the District of Columbia tested an online voting system to be used by citizens and members of the military abroad. In a mere 36 hours, a team of computer science graduate students from the University of Michigan had successfully hacked into the system and changed all of the ballots to favor their preferred candidates.
While this happened a decade ago, think back to the fiasco that was the Iowa caucuses this year. There are multiple ways in which digital election results could be compromised, and that is a risk we cannot afford to take. Beyond security concerns, online voting would not help those who lack stable internet access, and could pose challenges for those who are unfamiliar with computers or who have disabilities.
President Donald Trump has argued against the expansion of voting by mail, asserting that it would negatively affect Republicans and was susceptible to widespread fraud. But (as usual) he is simply wrong.
Experts have debunked pervasive voter fraud as myth, and a new study by Stanford found that voting by mail has a negligible effect on partisan voter turnout. The study, which used election data from 1996 to 2018 from California and Utah, also found that voter turnout generally increased one to two percentage points when vote-by-mail was an option.
Fortunately, some lawmakers are taking action to expand vote-by-mail at the national level. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are leading the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA), which would mandate 20 days of early voting before the actual election date. This would make absentee ballots accessible to all voters and provide three million dollars to the Election Assistance Commission. This bill is similar to Maryland’s own plan for the primary election, and would be a great foundation for state efforts to transition elections during COVID-19 to occur primarily by mail.
Free and fair elections are the foundation of our democracy. We can’t afford low turnout, nor is an online option currently feasible. In order to ensure we uphold this foundation, it is necessary that all states adopt Maryland’s plan to mail ballots to all registered voters for their primaries. The U.S. must also be prepared to vote-by-mail in November.
Laura Wadsten is a sophomore studying International Studies and Medicine, Science, and the Humanities from Brainerd, Minn. She is a Science & Technology Editor of The News-Letter and is a member of Hopkins College Democrats.