David Cole in the New York Review of Books article highlights the fundamental right of citizens to vote. He emphasizes that the obvious answer to the problem of how to preserve democracy in a pandemic is to expand voting by mail. Failing to make absentee voting in these circumstances available to all is an impermissible burden on the constitutional right to vote—just as providing only a single polling place for a large district would be. States must provide adequate opportunities to vote, and when they do not, even if the immediate cause is beyond their control, they violate the Constitution.
Cole describes the fiasco of the April 7, 2020 election in Milwaukee where there were lines of people waiting to vote in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of Wisconsin residents had to put their health at risk to vote, while both the US and Wisconsin Supreme Court justices voted remotely. In fact, at least forty voters and poll workers may have contracted the coronavirus as a result.
Many states that allow absentee voting without an excuse have seen a huge surge in requests for ballots that often exceed the capacity of the clerks to fill these requests. However, as the five states that already conduct their elections by mail have shown, it can be done. But perhaps the biggest factor in whether it will be done properly in November will be resources. The pandemic will lead to unprecedented numbers of absentee ballots, and dealing with them responsibly and securely will be costly. States will need support and resources.
The Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that administering free and fair elections in November will cost approximately $2 billion. But in its first stimulus package, Congress provided only $400 million, and the second stimulus law includes nothing more. There is likely to be still more stimulus legislation in the coming months, but it is crucial that it includes substantially more funds for election administration. Moreover, voting by mail requires a functioning post office—which may account for President Trump’s hostility to a bailout for that struggling but essential government service.
Making voting by mail easier during the pandemic makes good sense from a democratic and public health perspective. But more fundamentally, it is constitutionally required. State legislatures MUST allow people to vote by mail during a pandemic or they will be effectively denying people their right to vote.
ACTION – Contact your legislators and demand funding for both the post office and for election administration!