Washington state has seen one of the largest outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in the country so far. It’s also one of six states voting in the Democratic primary today. An election plus a budding epidemic could be an equation for disaster: thousands of people crowded together in polling places, waiting in lines, touching the same door handles and voting machines—or, fearing the prospect of germs, bailing on the whole thing, driving down turnout. But election administrators there aren’t worried. Why not?
Because Washington is one of a handful of states that conducts elections entirely by mail. (The others are Oregon, Colorado, and, as of this year, Hawaii and Utah.) Every registered voter gets a ballot sent to their address about two weeks in advance, and has until Election Day to fill it out and mail it back or drop it off at a secure drop box. They can also print their ballot out if necessary. No polling places, no door handles, no touchscreens. People who really want to vote in person, or need to register (the state also has same-day registration), can show up to “vote centers” on Election Day. But most folks vote at home, according to state officials. That means fear of getting sick shouldn’t keep anyone from participating in the primary.
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As the threat of coronavirus adds a new wrinkle to America’s already dismal election infrastructure, the vote-at-home approach deserves to have a moment. It turns out it solves a lot of problems besides the risk of contagion. In many states, voters have waited in line for hours to vote—a major problem that can at least be mitigated if millions of people aren’t forced to descend simultaneously on in-person polling places. Indeed, after reports of the outrageous lines endured by some Los Angeles voters on Super Tuesday this year, California’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla, called on the county to join the 14 other counties in the state that will be mailing every voter a ballot in November.
The easier it is to vote, the more people will do it. The three states with all-mail elections consistently see higher turnout. A 2018 study found that in Utah, which has been expanding vote-at-home county by county, the counties that had adopted it saw a turnout boost of 5 to 7 percentage points compared to those that hadn’t. The gains are especially large among young people, who vote at much lower rates and therefore have the most room to improve. That might be because sending ballots to infrequent voters, who might not even know an election is coming up, acts as a powerful nudge. It could also be because the system neutralizes some of the most common voter-suppression tactics, like closing polling places and voter ID laws.
The turnout boost seems to be playing out in the primary already. Colorado and Minnesota, which both voted on Super Tuesday, also both switched from caucuses to primaries this year. Caucuses, which require people to show up in person for hours, generally draw lower turnout than primaries. And indeed, both states saw participation go up. In Minnesota, turnout went from just over 200,000 in 2016 to around 745,000 in 2020. Not bad! But in Colorado, which has had vote-at-home since 2012, switching to a primary meant sending every registered voter a ballot in the mail. Turnout went from about 120,000 in 2016 to just over 1 million voters this year. (Those numbers are just for the Democratic primary.)
There’s no evidence that all-mail voting is any less secure than other systems. In fact, because it requires paper ballots, vote-at-home is a better option than paperless voting machines. It’s true that every so often there are cases of fraud with mail-in ballots, but hundreds of millions of votes have been cast by mail all over the country over the past few decades without any sign of widespread mischief. The list of voter fraud cases maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, doesn’t show higher rates for vote-at-home states. It’s simply really hard to coordinate voter mail fraud on a wide enough scale for it to be worth it—as Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris learned the hard way last year, when multiple voters came forward to complain about a campaign employee illegally collecting absentee ballots. “There’s absolutely no evidence of higher voter fraud in vote-by-mail, and there’s some anecdotal evidence of lower,” said Gerry Langeler, director of communications and research at the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Julie Wise, the elections director for King County, the site of Washington’s largest coronavirus outbreak, said elections have gotten more secure since the county implemented vote-at-home a decade ago. (The entire state didn’t go to universal vote-by-mail until 2012.)
“I’ve been working for King County elections for 20 years, and half of that was running polling places,” she said. Training poll workers was a persistent problem, which led to lapses like missing ballots or people mistakenly being allowed to vote repeatedly. “I’m alarmed at how many things I personally saw happening at polling places that do not and cannot happen in vote-by-mail.”
In the shadow of the coronavirus, vote-at-home isn’t perfect. Someone still needs to count the ballots. Wise said King County staff would be wearing gloves and taking regular breaks to wash their hands and clean down surfaces. Kim Wyman, the secretary of state, told me last week that she worried a broader outbreak could affect staffing at ballot counting sites, slowing down the count. Still, she said, that’s better than the thought of having traditional polling sites. “What’s nice is, we’re not trying to figure out how we're going to staff thousands of polling places across the state,” she said.
As public health officials prepare for a surge of coronavirus cases in the US, it’s clear that states and the federal government need to be coming up with Election Day contingency plans—especially since poll workers tend to be older, and people over 60 are at higher risk from Covid-19. It’s too late for most of the country to simply adopt a universal vote-at-home system. But there’s a lot that can still be done. According to the National Vote at Home Institute, 29 states plus Washington, DC, have “no-excuse” absentee voting, which means anyone who wants a mailed-out ballot can get one. They can start preparing by getting the word out.
“States have a number of levers they can pull, not the least of which is informing voters of their choice,” Langeler says. “In many states, we find that many voters don’t know about no-excuse absentee—they don’t know it’s an option.”
There are also moves these states can make to nudge voters to vote absentee. In Ohio, Republican secretary of state Frank LaRose has long been planning to send an absentee ballot application to every registered voter as a way to accommodate what he expects to be high turnout in November. He also wants the state to pay for mail-in ballot postage and allow voters to request ballots online. Other states could follow suit for primaries and the general, and Congress could help by providing funding for all states to prepay postage. States that don’t currently offer no-excuse absentee ballots, meanwhile, might be able to join the club, at least in time for November, either through emergency legislation or executive action, depending on state laws.
As testing expands in the US, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is almost certain to grow dramatically, including in states that still have primaries. There’s no way to know what the situation will look like this fall. But politicians and election officials don’t need to wait. Spreading vote-by-mail looks like one of the smartest, simplest ways to plan for the worst. And if the worst doesn’t happen? All we’ll have done is made voting easier and raised turnout. For a country with some of the worst turnout rates in the developed world, that could be just the medicine.