COVID-19 pandemic raises critical question: What are we willing to do to preserve our rights at the polls?

What were the key challenges to voting before COVID-19? Long lines at polling places? Too few polling places? Not convenient? Voter ID? Now add COVID-19, a disease that spreads quickly, easily, and can be deadly, and safety measures, such as social distancing, voters and poll workers wearing masks and gloves. What will the impact of COVID-19 be on voter turnout? Can we provide safe, secure means of voting for November 2020?

There are options, such as voting by mail and voting online. Both options have challenges, as well as proponents and opponents. Do states have a secure infrastructure to print, mail out, tabulate and report out in a timely, reliable manner?

According to an April 11, 2020, article in The Atlantic by Ronald Brownstein, the six states that will most likely determine the next president of the United States all allow voters to vote by mail for any reason. Those states are: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina in the Sun Belt and Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in the Rust Belt.

Is this what we will be facing in the presidential election on Nov. 3? A choice between our health and exercising our right to vote? Will people decide not to vote at all?

On April 7, there was a primary in Wisconsin. On that date, there were 1,387 reported cases of COVID-19 infections, of which 626 were blacks or Hispanics. Of the 51 deaths, 36, or 71%, were black or Hispanic. Due to a shortage of poll workers, it was said, only five of the 180 polling places were open in Milwaukee.  

Dr. Rosemarie A. Pelletier

Milwaukee voters, overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, had to wait in line for hours. These voters, blacks and Hispanics, practiced social distancing as best they could under the circumstances. The New York Times reported, “citizens were forced to choose between following public health orders to stay home and stand in line for hours at one of just five polling places the city kept open amid the coronavirus pandemic. … Republicans, meanwhile, said they knew of few problems outside of Milwaukee, which has long been portrayed by the state’s conservatives as the source of Wisconsin’s problems. There was little sympathy.” 

Is this what we will be facing in the presidential election on Nov. 3?  A choice between our health and exercising our right to vote?  Will people decide not to vote at all? 

That raises another challenge and concern — poll workers, election workers. Will the precincts provide personal protection equipment — masks, gloves, gowns — so these essential workers will be as safe as possible? What are we willing to do to preserve our right to vote, the right of all registered voters to vote?

Voting options

One option is mail-in ballots. Currently, five states, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah (and some California counties) pre-emptively mail all eligible voters a ballot; 28 states have “no excuse” absentee voting. Seventeen states allow voters to request a mail-in ballot “for cause.” If we can pay our taxes by mail, can’t we vote by mail?

Another option is online voting. Similarly, if we can pay our taxes online in a secure fashion, shouldn’t online voting be an option? Would online voting contribute to suppressing the vote of those who don’t have access? Should states open up public buildings and install secure computers for voting? Does that mitigate the concern of voter suppression and reduce the fear of contracting the virus? 

Should we be concerned about voter fraud for the mail-in and online voting options?  Pew Research studies show that voting discrepancies stem from bad information in the voter rolls — name changes, unreported deaths, address changes, etc. In fact, President Donald Trump and several members of his family had their names in voter rolls in multiple precincts — attributed to a failure by the precinct to update voter rolls in a timely manner. Studies show that actual voter fraud is less than a fraction of 1% of all votes cast.

At the end of the day, if absentee ballots are secure enough to be filed by mail according to 35 states and by the federal government for servicemembers and others overseas, and if paying taxes by mail and online are secure and reliable for the federal government and the states, mail-in ballots and online voting are secure and reliable enough for a presidential election in November 2020. 

Now we just need the political consensus and will to make that happen. Why would anyone be opposed to that?

Dr. Rosemarie A. Pelletier is the program director for the Master of Public Administration and Master of Science in Cybersecurity programs at Norwich University.

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