In May, my wife and I received our ballots to vote by mail in Maryland’s primary. The whole process was easy. We voted and put our ballots in the provided self-addressed envelope. Given COVID-19, we preferred to vote by mail since we are trying to limit our exposure to the virus. The entire experience got me thinking, “What if every American was able to vote by mail in the general election?” Because of the pandemic, every effort should be made to ensure that all Americans are given the ability to vote by mail, particularly seniors, who are more susceptible to the virus.
According to the United States Census Bureau, 70 percent of seniors (65+) turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential election (for more information please see “Seniors and Voter Participation”). Seniors are a reliable voting block; however, given the pandemic, there are now clear obstacles stopping them from being able to vote. Polling places have been removed from senior living facilities to limit the residents' exposure to the virus. This is a necessary safety move but an obvious downside because it makes voting for seniors more difficult. Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Project, indicates in-person voting during COVID-19 brings risks because of shared touch screens, ballot marking devices and pens. We certainly don’t want anyone choosing between their health and safety and their right to vote.
Complicating matters further, Pew Research Center found a majority of poll workers are 61 and over. Furthermore, The Washington Post reported that states have had a hard time staffing polls during the pandemic. For example, in Anchorage, Alaska, 95 percent of their typical poll workers opted out of working a local election. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, polling locations for the primary election were reduced from 180 to five. It’s hard to blame people, especially older Americans, who feel working at the polls brings inherent dangers during a pandemic. Obviously, having less staff at the polls will make in-person voting more challenging and only furthers the need to increase voting access by mail.
States vary on how to administer voting through the mail. A few states will automatically mail residents a ballot, most states have “no excuse” absentee voting and a handful of states require a reason. You might be saying, “so what’s the problem? An overwhelming majority of states will mail seniors a ballot or allow them to request one.”
Unfortunately, during a pandemic, it’s not that simple!
What happens if older Americans are required to get a witness signature on their absentee ballots? Countless seniors are self-quarantining because of the virus, which makes getting a witness signature impractical, especially if the signature must be from another registered voter in their state. Teresa Maples, a senior with a pre-existing health problem from Minnesota, said, "There is no question that I will be unable to vote in person because I am strictly following the social distancing and self-isolation guidelines. Because I live alone and cannot safely obtain a witness signature, my vote may never be counted." According to Pew Research Center, this is a problem with potentially far reaching consequences, as 27 percent of people age 60 and above live alone in our country.
Also, what about people who live with their elderly parents and fear voting in person will expose them and, in turn, their parents to the virus? This could be a real problem in states that require “an excuse” to vote absentee. For instance, Martha Christian Green from Louisiana, whose 80-year-old mother lives with her, has a risky situation. “If I cannot vote by absentee ballot in the 2020 elections, I will be forced to choose between voting and protecting my mother’s health,” Green told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Voting has always been important to me and my family. My father took me to register to vote when I turned 18. I have a strong family legacy of voting – almost genetic. I believe it is my civic duty.”
Thankfully, there have been lawsuits filed around the country on these and similar matters to ensure everyone’s right to vote is protected. Recently, in Minnesota, litigation was settled because both parties agreed that a witness’ signature would not be required to submit a ballot through the mail. However, legal challenges to this agreement by the Minnesota House of Representatives is still a possibility. While we can expect this type of litigation to continue around the country up until Election Day, in the end I hope that our judicial system will recognize that every citizen’s right to vote is paramount and not place any undue burdens on people’s ability to make their voices heard.
Ideally, all elected officials would be working to expand voter access during a pandemic. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be consensus on voting from home because of the virus. Some government officials argue that voting by mail will lead to election fraud.
When evaluating the propensity for voter fraud through the mail, it’s important to recognize the rigorous existing safeguards. For example, The New York Times reports that Washington state confirms personal information and works to ensure voters are only registered once throughout the state. On top of that, election offices ensure signatures on file match those on the ballot. It should be noted that the state of Washington votes largely by mail.
Any conversation about mail-in voting should start with the premise that election fraud is not prevalent; therefore, there is no justification to force people into crowded polling places during a pandemic. Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Charles Stewart III, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, have reported that during the past 20 years in our country, 250 million votes have been cast through the mail, which have resulted in only 143 criminal convictions for voter fraud.
Obviously even one case of voter fraud is a problem that should be prosecuted, but given its minuscule presence in our country, politicians who scare everyone into thinking this is a crisis are not engaging in an honest dialogue.
Pew Research Center reports a whopping 70 percent of Americans believe that voters should be allowed to vote by mail. With an overwhelming amount of support, let’s all start working together to increase access to voting. Older Americans and their loved ones shouldn’t have to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional right to vote. Life in quarantine can be frustrating enough, let’s make things a little easier and expand everyone’s ability to vote.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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