Can a global pandemic upend democracy’s most sacred institution: The Vote

By Laura Catterson, Hottinger Investment Management

The ballot is stronger than the bullet” ― Abraham Lincoln

If you are at all familiar with US presidential elections, you will understand that in attempting to outlay the hurdles a voter may encounter, one can never be terse; therein lies the rub.

2020 is particularly vulnerable. This election season is confronted by this generation’s global pandemic. COVID-19 is poised to upend US citizens ability to cast their ballot unless voting by mail can resurrect a far from auspicious system. Evidence from states who have already implemented this method suggests it works well if preparations are made early and potential obstacles are foreseen, the largest of which are logistics and time. Thus, in order to save democracy’s most sacred institution, officials at all levels of government must make hay while the sun shines, and sleeps for that matter.

If you are eighteen years old, a US citizen and resident in one of the fifty states, assuming you are not a felon; you are eligible to vote.[i] Today, the pool of eligible voters is far broader and more inclusive than ever before; yet imperfection remains. Gaining access to the ballot box has been made more difficult by active efforts to suppress some groups from voting. These tactics, wrapped in a veneer of law include: voter intimidation, criminalization of voter registration drives, disguised poll taxes, gerrymandered districts (where the boundaries of an electoral constituency are manipulated to favour one party), hackable voting machines, voter poll purges and squashing access to voting on college campuses.[ii] Voter ID laws are also an extremely effective way of voter suppression. Over twenty-one million US citizens do not have a government issued photo ID which as a result, reduces voter turnout by two to three percent.[iii]

This year’s election, however, is unlikely to look like any other. Should COVID-19 persist, the need to keep people separated will present an unprecedented challenge in holding a nationwide vote.[iv] The potential risk of contagion at polling stations means a reliable alternative is key. Now backed by two thirds of US voters, voting by mail could be the required remedy.[v]

The urgency of implementing this method en masse, however, is becoming ever greater. At the time of writing, COVID-19 has forced fifteen states to postpone their presidential primaries or switch to voting by mail with extended deadlines.[vi] The general election in November however, a date prescribed by law; cannot be postponed, followed shortly by the constitutionally mandated inauguration of the next president on 20th January 2021.[vii]

To ascertain whether voting by mail is a viable option nationwide, we must examine current state examples and assess the logistical framework required for November. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington represent the five states where most or all votes are cast by mail. Their experiences have yielded the following key findings: voter turnout is significantly higher, it is safe and secure and lastly, voters of all political persuasions use it and like it which is a milestone in and of itself. [iv]

During the 2016 election, nearly one-quarter of all voters cast their ballot by mail and as figure 1 highlights, it is steadily growing in popularity.

Figure 1: Percentage increase in early voters, voting by mail and absentee ballots

These findings are encouraging however, expanding this method nationwide in a matter of months is a herculean task and one which needs to begin today.

At a minimum, the following is required: printing tens of millions of mail-in ballots and envelopes; ensuring registered voters automatically receive one; can request a replacement if they do not; and can return it by election day.iv Additionally, in states where voting by mail is relatively low, they are typically not equipped with machines that can scan mail-in ballots on mass. Thus, administrators currently compare signatures on mail-in ballots against those on file in the voter registration database. If these states are to expect a spike in mail voting this November, more staff need to be trained, voter registration simplified, and technology upgraded. The latter of which can only be implemented if the limited number of vendors who can perform such a task are not already constrained by a sharp increase in demand.[vii]

Further provisions that must be made include public education on handling and returning ballots, as well as nationwide early voting availability so that should a person be uncomfortable or unable to vote by mail, they can do so in person whilst social distancing policies are still adhered to.

Reassuringly, efforts are already being made to implement many of the above measures. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Ron Wyden have designed a bill to combat the implications of COVID-19 and any future diseases or natural disasters which cause similar disruption. The bill specifies, should 25% of states declare a state of emergency, mail-in or drop-off paper ballot options must be made available and that requests for a ballot can be made electronically. The bill would also provide the necessary funding for states to implement such measures.

This is promising however, it would be foolish to suggest implementing every necessary measure, nationwide, without error and within a matter of months, is achievable. Nevertheless, the US government has responded to the threat COVID-19 has had on the economy and the health of the American people and it is crucial it responds to the threat on democracy in kind.

Looking ahead, it is likely voter suppression will remain for years to come however, it is evident that with the expansion of voter rights, predominantly voting by mail which once refined across all states, will do much to combat such draconian efforts. Additionally, the fact that this method of voting is liked by both sides of the political aisle suggests its popularity is only set to continue growing as well as the demand for a fairer and more just political system.

For this year however, all that can be done; must be. A country that suffers from some of the lowest voter turnout in the developed world[viii] clearly needs an injection of voter confidence and convenience. Voting by mail provides just that however, democracy has a deadline and the clock is ticking.

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9VdyPbbzlI

 

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/nov/13/voter-suppression-2020-democracy-america

 

[iii] https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/

 

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/21/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-vote-mail.html

 

[v] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-mail-voting-november-election-trump-objection-a9479876.html

 

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/article/2020-campaign-primary-calendar-coronavirus.html

 

Figure 1: eac.gov

 

[vii] https://bipartisanpolicy.org/blog/voting-by-mail-in-the-age-of-coronavirus-a-good-idea-but-not-a-total-solution/

 

[viii] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/21/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/