It’s Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020. In Austin, Texas, polling lines are almost non-existent, even with 95% of the polling locations having been closed. Poll monitors say that for most hours, no one has been at their locations. As evening approaches and votes begin to be counted, it’s clear that more Austinites than ever have voted. How, one may ask? With the vast majority voting by absentee ballot.
In late 2019, our world began to drastically change, even if most of us who live in the United States were blissfully unaware of the massive disruptions and threat to our health and livelihoods that we were soon to face due to COVID-19. Now, the threat extends beyond concerns for our health and that of our families, beyond even the resilience of our communities – it threatens the foundation of our ability to operate as a democracy. There is, however, a way for Austin to ensure democracy survives by implementing an easy solution: have Texas expanding absentee voting to all eligible voters.
Without citizen participation, democracy can quickly devolve into tyranny or anarchy. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Elections belong to the people.” Yet, over the past few weeks, the tension between personal health and a functioning democracy has become palatable. This isn’t the first time that stress on elections has occurred – elections in the US have been held during wars and previous plagues, during depressions and famines.
However, some 2020 elections aren’t being held. In fact, as of mid-April, 16 states so far have delayed their presidential primary, electing to postpone their elections until later in the summer. While that approach may work for primaries, it decidedly won’t work for the Presidential election. A 1948 federal law is clear: “The electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed, in each State, on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November, in every fourth year succeeding every election of a President and Vice President.” Which means Austin, and the rest of the country, needs to begin to prepare for a world where the choice isn’t between liberty or death, but rather where exercising one’s liberty leads to an increased chance of death.
This risk we face should elections be held in person during a pandemic was highlighted in Wisconsin on April 7th during the state’s presidential primary. While Robin Vos, Wisconsin’s Assembly Speaker assured voters it was “incredibly safe” to vote in person, he, unironically, donned a mask, gloves and other protective gear. Voters looking to participate in democracy were required to stand in lines 6 feet apart, all to vote at locations where poll workers were scarce, and often wearing full personal protective equipment. Since then, and as of this writing, 52 voters and poll workers have tested positive for COVID-19 directly attributed by health officials to the state’s decision to hold the election in the traditional, polling place fashion.
There is a straightforward answer available to Texas: expand absentee voting to everyone. Ohio showed what this modified election may look like where, after passing a bill on March 25, 2020, the state proceeded to hold its presidential primary on April 27th with all-mail balloting. All-mail balloting isn’t a crazy or even novel concept. According to the Brennan Center, 23 percent of ballots in the US were cast by mail in 2016, and 26 percent of ballots were cast by mail in 2018. There are even five states that run all-mail elections. Texas, in fact, already has some ballots cast by mail, with existing laws allowing for absentee voting to those that are 65 years or older, disabled, out of the country or confined in jail. Texas even allows astronauts to vote from outer space. But, if you don’t fit into one of those categories, it is illegal to vote by mail.
Given current world circumstances, a logical step to protect both democracy and voter’s health would be to expand existing election laws, allowing for any Texan concerned about health issues associated with voting in-person to request a mail ballot by checking the “disabled” option on the application. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, however, has proclaimed that COVID-19 does not qualify for the opportunity to request a mail ballot, holding that “The integrity of our democratic election process must be maintained, and law established by our Legislature must be followed consistently.” Which means that cities, like Austin, may be hamstrung until the state Legislature calls a special session to amend the language in the Texas election code.
Fortunately, there is a chance that an amendment to the election code may not be needed. On April 17, 2020, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak issued a ruling that, at least temporarily, expands the ability to vote by mail to any registered voter who has health concerns about voting in person in the upcoming elections (Texas has a postponed election coming up in July 2020).
Opponents of the expansion of voting by mail claim that it will increase voter fraud. Yet, with current technology, there are ways to easily overcome most concerns. For example, ballots can be barcoded, allowing for tracking of the number of ballots, but also who has voted and where ballots are at during any time. Ballots can be required to be dropped in secure locations, with cameras and other security monitoring systems in place. And, audits combined with existing voter fraud laws, should be a significant deterrence to anyone looking to commit voter fraud. Which means that there is a way for us to directly address these concerns to ensure voter fraud doesn’t increase while still increasing voter participation.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlights why Austinites should demand from our state elected officials that they be granted the right to vote by mail to protect their health. But, even after the world returns to a “normal” state of operations, Austinites should still fight for an expansion of our ability to vote by mail, making it easier for any and all registered voters to participate in our democratic elections. After all, our elections do belong to all of us.
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