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Saving Democracy from the Coronavirus

Quick and concerted action is needed to ensure that Covid-19 does not prevent millions from voting in November.

This is part of the Bren­nan Center’s response to the coronavirus.

This op-ed origin­ally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

As the coronavirus upends Amer­ican life and threatens public health, it’s endan­ger­ing the elec­tions we use to choose our repres­ent­at­ives as a free people. On Friday, Louisi­ana announced it would post­pone its pres­id­en­tial primary to June. Other states have closed polling places, includ­ing those in senior facil­it­ies.

Our elec­tion system is utterly unready to deal with a pandemic. States that have primar­ies coming up in the next week or two are rapidly taking steps to keep voters safe from poten­tial infec­tion at polling places, putting in place clean­ing proced­ures and expand­ing polling areas to allow social distan­cing between voters. But as the virus spreads over time, that may not be enough.

This pandemic does not have an end date. But there’s time to reduce risks if Congress and state legis­latures act now. Quick and concer­ted action, backed by a signi­fic­ant infu­sion of federal resources, is needed to ensure that COVID-19 does not prevent millions from voting in Novem­ber — a situ­ation this coun­try must avoid at all costs. Even for states with primar­ies in May or June, there’s still time to put in place flex­ible elect­oral proced­ures that allow for safer voting meth­ods.

For a compre­hens­ive plan to protect the 2020 elec­tion from Covid-19, click here.

Start with voter regis­tra­tion. In the past, regis­tra­tion required phys­ic­ally filling out pieces of paper. Today 39 states allow voters to register online. The remain­ing states should do so, too, which will require federal dollars to add an online option. Those that already register voters online should bolster their current systems so offi­cials don’t have to manu­ally process the records. And states will need to loosen regis­tra­tion dead­lines to account for govern­ment office clos­ures and delays.

Even before the pandemic, too many polling places have been shut down, lead­ing to long lines and confu­sion. COVID-19 might force many more. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012, many voters had to go to new and unfa­mil­iar sites. And long lines on elec­tion day could lead to danger­ous expos­ure for voters and poll work­ers.

To prevent this, offi­cials should keep exist­ing polling places open, consist­ent with public health and protec­tion needs. But if they can’t, they must let people know where their new sites will be as soon as possible. That’s espe­cially import­ant when it comes to voting sites at senior homes. And the voting period should be exten­ded, prefer­ably over two weeks, to prevent long lines and allow for social distan­cing.

For the millions of voters who will be unable or unwill­ing to go to a polling place this year, there needs to be a univer­sal option of voting by mail. In states where elec­tion offi­cials do not already have the author­ity to provide this option, this will require action by state legis­latures or Congress or emer­gency orders by state exec­ut­ives. Voters should be given the chance to ask for mail-in ballots in myriad ways — on the phone, online, by letter. Offi­cials should print enough ballots so that every possible voter could get one.

Secur­ity for mail-in ballots is crit­ical, too. Secure drop boxes could be installed at govern­ment offices or other loca­tions to avoid tamper­ing and bolster confid­ence. Dead­lines should be exten­ded so that all mail-in ballots are coun­ted. While mail voting should be avail­able to all, in-person ballot­ing is still the most access­ible and secure option for many Amer­ic­ans. For those in many Native Amer­ican communit­ies, it is the only one. We should do what we can to retain the in-person option.

Unlike primary elec­tions, which states can move, the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion date was set by a federal law in the 1840s and applies uniformly across the coun­try. Pres­id­ents are sworn in on Jan. 20, and a shift would leave little time for a trans­ition. That’s why it’s crit­ical we take the steps needed to ensure that every­one can vote safely and securely in Novem­ber.

We’ve never had to run an elec­tion beset by a public health emer­gency of this kind. But we’ve had to cast ballots amid crisis and disrup­tion before. In 1864, during the Civil War, Abra­ham Lincoln was determ­ined to main­tain free elec­tions, even though he believed he might lose. “We cannot have free govern­ment without elec­tions; and if the rebel­lion could force us to forgo, or post­pone a national elec­tion it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us,” he wrote.

With the same spirit, we can make sure this devast­at­ing pandemic does not under­mine our demo­cracy.