Some states encourage mail-in ballots as coronavirus worries grow
Alice Miranda Ollstein • Mar 02, 2020
Officials in some states with upcoming primaries are encouraging more people to avoid in-person polling sites amid heightened worries about the spread of coronavirus in the United States. Some are even increasing the opportunity for drive-by voting on Super Tuesday.
California’s Solano County, the site of the country’s first identified case of the virus’ spread within the community, added new curbside sites where people can drop off their ballots without having to leave their cars.
“If you can stay in your car to get service, lots of people want to take advantage of that even in a normal situation, but especially when they might be concerned about congregating in close proximity to a lot of other people,” said county election official John Gardner.
Meanwhile, some election experts are urging states to relax their absentee voter policies in light of the new public health threat, though some state officials dismissed the idea of hastily rewriting election policies.
“Now is the time, before disaster strikes, for states to consider changing the rules,” said Rick Hasen, professor of election law at the University of California at Irvine. “Election officials need to engage in contingency planning, and now one of the contingencies is the potential shutdowns of public spaces in ways that could impact people’s ability to exercise their franchise.”
Some states like California that allow anyone to vote through mail-in ballots say residents should take that option. A couple of others, including Washington state, which had the first two deaths from coronavirus on U.S. soil and holds its primary March 10, actually require voters to mail in their ballots or drop them off.
Casey Katims, a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee, said that system may not only help slow the spread of coronavirus but also protect the public during flu season.
“Reducing potential for transmission of any infectious disease is a positive,” he said.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at an election law conference in California this weekend said her office has seen a major surge in requests for absentee ballots ahead of its March 10 primary — the first statewide contest in which any voter can cast a ballot by mail.
“The ability to vote from home and vote absentee without a reason is on the rise, and that’s a good thing from a contingency standpoint,” she said.
As testing for the virus ramps up in the coming weeks, health experts predict the number of confirmed cases is likely to spike. Already, the epidemic has prompted officials and private organizations to consider canceling or postponing major sporting events, conferences and other large gatherings.
Still, public health experts say that despite the new cases of the virus identified over the weekend, people should not be afraid to go to the polls, noting that simple measures like hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes go a long way toward preventing the spread of the illness.
Hasen, the election expert, said states should consider making either a temporary or permanent allowance for expanded mail-in balloting well ahead of the November general election. It’s better to act sooner rather than later to avoid the risk of confusing voters or making the decision appear politically motivated.
Mail-in ballots won’t always be an option for everyone, even in states like California where the option is popular. Election officials acknowledge many will still want to come to the polls for a number of reasons, like they want to change their registration or need assistance because of a language barrier or disability.
So officials are taking other precautions. In Sacramento County, election officials are distributing to polling sites hand sanitizer, wipes and latex gloves that work with touch-screen voting machines ahead of tomorrow’s primary.
Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, emphasized that it’s not any more dangerous to be out in public than it was a few weeks ago, and that depressed voter turnout would do far more harm than good.
“It’s much more important for the future of the country that people vote, and vote for people who support science and preparedness and want to fund it,” she said. “It would be really bad for the country if people stayed home out of fear.”
Some election officials in conservative states with restrictive voting laws remain unconvinced they should relax absentee voter policies, saying it’s too early to assess the coronavirus risk before changing election laws.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves — that's not appropriate,” said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who pointed out there have been no confirmed cases yet in the Super Tuesday state.
Merrill and other GOP election administrators say they would consider emergency plans if there’s a true crisis in their states — whether it's a infectious disease pandemic, a natural disaster or an attack on the power grid — though that call would ultimately fall to governors.
“If there’s one thing that’s more important than a fair and honest election, it’s life and health and safety,” said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose at the election law conference. “That’s when very difficult decisions have to be made, including whether there needs to be an order to suspend election day. Let’s hope we don’t have to, but we’re ready for it.”
You can read the full article by Alice Miranda Ollstein here.
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