Expanding vote-by-mail and absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic will help thousands, potentially millions, of eligible voters to exercise their right to vote safely.
The spread of coronavirus makes expanding vote-by-mail policies absolutely critical — especially for people who cannot wait in long lines or risk exposure to the virus. Our knowledge about how the coronavirus spreads across communities obligates us to ensure that every American feels safe to cast a ballot in order to protect our democracy. That decision will look different for every individual, but offering a comprehensive program by which individuals can easily request, complete, and return a mail-in ballot is critical for expanding voter turnout in November.
Voting by mail is safe, secure, and reliable. It has proven to be just as secure as in-person voting, and it has shown to increase voter turnout, with the added benefit of easing wait times at polling locations.
Mail-in voting can provide a critical access point for those who don’t feel safe voting at an in-person location, or due to physical, mental, or occupational limitations. While historically under-utilized across many states, it can be a vital tool to alleviate the barriers to the ballot box associated with illness, disability, occupation, childcare obligations, transportation challenges, or travel. Many others cast their votes remotely simply because doing so is convenient, and it ensures their voices are heard.
No matter the reason, voting by mail has proven to be just as secure as in-person voting, increases voter turnout, and has the added benefit of easing wait times at polling locations. Perhaps most importantly, though, this voting method is an essential tool for those with an illness or disability that prevents them from accessing in-person polling places.
We must protect alternatives to in-person voting, and we must provide voters with a plethora of options for safely and securely casting their ballots.
Not everyone can readily access vote-by-mail. And many communities benefit from the in-person assistance provided by physical polling places. We must recognize that vote-by-mail and absentee voting can have major disadvantages for historically marginalized communities. For example, vote-by-mail is not a convenient option for people with certain disabilities who rely on in-person voting locations for vital accommodations. Requiring these people to vote at home is likely to result in their disenfranchisement. And especially for populations that have faced consistent voter suppression and discrimination, the act of physically voting on Election Day is deeply personally meaningful.
“There’s a very deep emotional connection to casting a ballot in person, to really be able to see and hold that receipt that your ballot was cast.”Sabrina Stevens, Campaign Director for Color of Change PAC
There's also distrust about vote-by-mail, shaped by systemic and ongoing voter suppression. Sporadic use of vote-by-mail by Black voters stems from historic mistrust of systems that have barred them from the political process for decades. A recent poll found that 41% of Black voters reported that they were worried their vote wouldn’t be counted if they vote by mail.
For some Black Americans, voting by mail may prove to be unattainable because of the high rates of those experiencing homelessness or unstable housing. For those living with various disabilities, in-person voting may be a critical lifeline to protecting not just their ability to vote, but the secrecy and integrity of their ballot. Nearly 30% of the total electorate — over 62 million individuals — either has a disability or lives with someone who does.
HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION NOW
We need you to become a frontline advocate with us. Here's what you can ask of your local officials based on our recommendations above.
1. Change state law to increase access to mail-in and absentee voting
Advocate for a temporary or permanent change to state law permitting absentee voting without requiring an excuse. In states where laws mandate that voters provide an excuse to receive an absentee ballot, ask officials to add the coronavirus to the list of criteria to fulfill this requirement. Research your state to find the individual who has the authority to clarify that fear of the coronavirus constitutes an acceptable excuse, and ask them to act now.
2. Temporarily or permanently remove burdensome requirements
For example, a dozen states require absentee voters to get a witness or notary to sign their ballots. You can contact your local officials to advocate to remove this onerous requirement.
3. Expand options for requesting and returning mail-in or absentee ballots
Ensure voters can request absentee ballots online, in-person, or via phone, email, or postal service. Ask officials to provide voters with postage-paid envelopes, to prevent socio-economic barriers to exercising this right, and to place plentiful and secure drop boxes in close vicinity of public transportation, especially in communities that have been historically marginalized or which lack access to ample in-person polling places.
4. Develop a strategy to accommodate the expected increase of mail-in or absentee ballots
This strategy should include a plan for ensuring that everyone who requests an absentee ballot receives one early enough to ensure that filling out and returning the form before Election Day will not be a problem. This must also include arrangements for processing, sorting, and counting the absentee or mail-in ballots received without delay.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR POLICYMAKERS AND ELECTION OFFICIALS
How state officials can make infrastructure improvements to increase access to mail-in and absentee voting:
- Obtain pre-paid return envelopes for mail-in ballots.
- Devise a plan to obtain and distribute secure ballot drop boxes with accompanying security, such as guards or cameras.
- Develop a system by which voters can track their ballots and obtain e-reminders for key deadlines through text or email.
- Invest in sorting equipment, high-speed ballot counters, and commercial space for processing.
How state officials can support policy implementation to increase access to mail-in and absentee voting:
- Immediately clarify changes to state law and implement a comprehensive voter education and awareness campaign to ensure all eligible voters know their options for voting and can make an educated choice on how they will cast their ballot.
- Ensure that ballot sorters and counters are given a pay increase for serving during the pandemic.