Mail the ballots now!

Here's how to deal with coronavirus and Wisconsin's April 7 election

Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images
Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, states are struggling with how to proceed with upcoming elections. Some states have postponed elections and others are moving forward, while encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots to reduce the risk of exposure.

However, neither of these solutions are sufficient. On one hand, postponing democracy is simply never a good idea and has the potential of leading our nation down the path of autocracy. On the other hand, voting in person right now puts voters and election officials at risk for spreading the coronavirus. Moreover, simply asking voters to vote absentee, while helpful, will never enable everyone who wants to vote to do so.

  • What about those without on-line access to request an absentee ballot?
  • What about people who are homeless?
  • What about people who simply forget to cast their ballots absentee, or simply wait too long to do so?

Yesterday, because I have been an election official at the polls since 2012, I was interviewed by a local radio station about my concerns about the upcoming Wisconsin election scheduled to take place on April 7. During my interview, I suggested that the solution to this dilemma was simply to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters. Voters would still have the option to vote in person, but mailing these ballots would accomplish both goals of:

  • maximizing voter turnout; and
  • minimizing person to person contact by reducing voters who come to the polls.

The State of Oregon has been voting by mail since 1998. Washington and Colorado also have mail-only elections. At least 21 states promote some elections as “all-mail,” but they don’t preclude in-person voting.

In Oregon, three weeks before each election, they mail ballots to every registered voter. Voters can mail them back or drop them in secure boxes placed all over the state. In 2016, 68% of registered voters cast their ballots, which is 8 percentage points higher than the national average. As an added benefit, these paper ballots cannot be hacked.

While some may argue that mailing ballots may result in voter fraud. The reality in Oregon is that this is a tiny problem. As former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling said, it would be “one of the stupidest ways to try to steal an election. They’d be committing a felony, vote by vote. A clerk once asked me to think about this. He said, ‘Phil, have you wondered why crooks don’t counterfeit pennies? They go for the twenties and the hundreds if they’re going to risk the jail time.’”

As a final security feature, in Oregon, a voter can ask for a text confirming that their ballot was counted. The signed ballot envelope provides at least much security as voter ID as it can be checked against the voter’s registration form.

Of course, most states, including Wisconsin, do not have a law mandating mail-in ballots. However, many governors, including Wisconsin’s, have declared states of emergency due to the COVID-19 crisis. They are mandating a lot of restrictions that would otherwise be illegal, such as limiting public gatherings and closures of schools, under the emergency declaration. In fact, the order closing nursing homes to visitors already eliminated the statutory requirement for Special Voting Deputies to go to assisted living facilities to assist those residents with casting their absentee ballots.

So, the governor could order municipal clerks to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters under the emergency order which would preserve democracy as well as the public’s health. Since the election is only three weeks away and many more ballots and return envelopes would need to be printed in order to accomplish this, the governor should issue this order today.

For those who feel that the election can be postponed because it is just a presidential primary, in Wisconsin, during the April 7th election, voters will also cast ballots for state Supreme Court, school board and other local officials, as well as a controversial constitutional amendment. Every one of these elections is important and state and local officials should do everything in their power to maximize voter participation while protecting everyone’s health. If you agree that Gov. Evers should order absentee ballots to be mailed to all registered voters, you may contact him here.