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Voting During the Pandemic

The essence of democracy is the ability of every citizen to cast a valid vote, whether it’s in person or by mail, writes Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro.

April 7, 2020
ballot box
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

There are sounds that help define the 20th century for me: the resound­ing thud as you close the heavy front door of a 1950s car with tail fins. The rat-a-tat of a touch typist racing along the keyboard of a manual machine. And the satis­fy­ing thwack of the lever on a voting machine after you have cast a ballot.

My fling with lever voting machines lasted longer than most unre­quited passions, since New York City used these 50-year-old relics until 2010. The romance of voting machines was actu­ally part of my unstint­ing enthu­si­asm for Elec­tion Day — no matter the year or the qual­ity of the candid­ates on the ballot.

Since I cast my first ballot as a Univer­sity of Michigan college student in 1968, I have been smit­ten with the humble rituals of voting. The friendly lines of neigh­bors real­iz­ing that they are doing some­thing of import­ance. The mostly elderly poll work­ers search­ing in books (and now on computer screens) for my name and my signa­ture from 1983, when I first registered in New York. And the “I Voted” stick­ers that I find myself some­times still wear­ing two days later.

So much of the civic reli­gion that I asso­ci­ated with Elec­tion Day involves people coming together in the same place at the same time to affirm demo­cracy. That same mood, I want to stress, can also be achieved with early voting.

The happi­est elec­tion crowd I have ever witnessed was in Colum­bus, Ohio, the Thursday before the 2008 elec­tion. Even though it was a two-hour wait to cast early ballots at the down­town Veter­ans Memorial Build­ing, every­one seemed thrilled to vote after prob­lems at Ohio polling places on Elec­tion Day 2004. Conduct­ing informal inter­views as the line snaked through the build­ing, I encountered almost univer­sal support for Barack Obama, who went on to carry Ohio by 200,000 votes.

This ingrained belief in the uplift­ing value of in-person voting (except, of course, for the sick and the home­bound) explains my anti­pathy to the idea of every­one cast­ing ballots by mail.

Phil Keis­ling, who cham­pioned Oregon’s pion­eer­ing conver­sion to vote-by-mail in the late 1990s as secret­ary of state, is a long-time friend. And I will admit that I was impressed by the turnout rate in Oregon, which hit 79 percent in 2000 in the first pres­id­en­tial race conduc­ted through univer­sal vote-by-mail. But despite hear­ing Keis­ling’s argu­ments in person many times, I adam­antly stuck to my belief that vote-by-mail was an inferior Elec­tion Day product, the equi­val­ent of repla­cing a gour­met meal with a TV dinner.

As univer­sal vote-by-mail spread to other west­ern states (Wash­ing­ton, Color­ado, Utah, and Hawaii), I would make jokes about being forced as a reporter to do an exit poll stand­ing next to a mail­box. In real­ity, I actu­ally tried with mixed success in the run-up to the 2012 elec­tion to inter­view Color­ado voters in the Denver suburbs drop­ping off their ballots at the Arapahoe County admin­is­tra­tion build­ing. Four years later, it was so much more emotion­ally satis­fy­ing to conduct my own exit poll stand­ing outside an actual polling place in Notting­ham, New Hamp­shire, on Elec­tion Day 2016.

Like so many other certain­ties, my reflex­ive oppos­i­tion to vote-by-mail has been upen­ded by Covid-19.

The partisan chaos surround­ing Tues­day’s Wiscon­sin primary and judi­cial elec­tion serves as a power­ful reminder that — in a devast­at­ing crisis — there will be moments when in-person voting is imprac­tical and poten­tially danger­ous.

Monday Wiscon­sin Demo­cratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to post­pone the April 7 in-person ballot­ing on health grounds but was promptly over­ruled by the Repub­lican state supreme court. Many polling places closed because of a short­age of elec­tion work­ers, guar­an­tee­ing long lines. And Wiscon­sin resid­ents want­ing to vote absentee only learned Monday night — after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled — that their ballots had to be post­marked by April 7 to be valid.

In a front-page Sunday edit­or­ial, the Milwau­kee Journal Sentinel declared, “It is not safe for voters to go to the polls next week. … If the elec­tion is held, turnout is likely to be abysmal, which may disen­fran­chise large blocs of voters and call the results into ques­tion.”

Wiscon­sin voters have been confron­ted with a set of choices that are incom­pat­ible with demo­cracy. Do they risk their health voting in person at a crowded polling place in the midst of a pandemic? Or, with the Postal Service upen­ded by the virus, do they gamble that their mailed-in absentee ballots will arrive on time?

Univer­sal voting by mail may not be a panacea in normal times. But every state should have a system in place for fair and orderly absentee ballot­ing in emer­gen­cies like this one. No voter in Amer­ica should ever again have to endure the break­down of demo­cracy that we are witness­ing in Wiscon­sin.

Covid-19 has also taught me a last­ing lesson about my personal romance with in-person voting. Yes, coming together at a polling place on Elec­tion Day is a heart­warm­ing tradi­tion worthy of a Norman Rock­well cover.

But the essence of demo­cracy isn’t this act of phys­ical assembly. What counts is the abil­ity of every citizen to cast a valid vote, whether it is in person, by mail, or delivered by a carrier pigeon. The setting is a quaint detail. What I should have been person­ally celeb­rat­ing all along instead of the rituals of Elec­tion Day is the right to vote itself.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.