If ever there were a perfect time to switch to mail-in voting, that time is right now. Even before onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and my subsequent lockdown as part of the at-risk demographic (old, with health issues) I’d been re-thinking the importance of voting by mail, particularly this year. I’d even checked out the deadline for requesting the proper ballot. But then Gov. Gavin Newsom took care of it for me last week with an order that ballots be mailed to all 20.6 million California voters. That makes the state the first in the nation to do so, though more will follow, I’m sure — unless Congress could be persuaded to miraculously fall in line quickly and make our national elections truly national.
Giving up a long-held tradition like in-person voting is hard and very much out of character for me. Especially when it’s something that Ed and I practiced faithfully over close to 60 years of life together in communities on one coast or the other. When we returned to California — cross-country move Number Five — some of our Los Angeles neighbors seemed surprised that we did not, as they did, vote by mail. I had the impression our insistence on going to the actual polling location reflected to them some unnecessary, outdated East Coast oddity, one of several, no doubt.
Looking back at all the skulduggery – not to mention outright illegal acts — perpetrated by one political party against the other over the years, I wonder what took me so long to join what is a growing consensus. It was the sight of Wisconsin primary election voters braving cold, rain and the threat of coronavirus for hours last April that did it for me. I’d tried to follow all the machinations leading to the chaos of that day in Milwaukee where fear of contagion kept so many older poll workers away that only five of 180 polling places were open. Five polling sites!
Had any of the voters that day become ill, I’d been wondering. I found the answer in this excellent New York Times Magazine article by Emily Bazelon titled “Can Democracy Survive the Pandemic?” (The online version now reads “Will Americans Lose the Right to Vote in the Pandemic?”). To my concern for how those hours outside in line might have affected voters, Bazelon writes, “In the weeks after the election, “Milwaukee health officials traced at least 40 cases of the virus to in-person voting.”
As more than one commentator has declared, “No one should have to choose between exposure to a potentially fatal disease and exercising the right to vote.”
So there’s Reason Number One to vote by mail, particularly during a pandemic.
Others that come to mind: Safety from hacking by nefarious outsiders. Ease of voting for the elderly or disabled persons. Increased involvement and interest in our government. Support for our beleaguered postal service.
The only people on earth who do not think foreign entities are already planning to disrupt our 2020 election are those who loudly claimed for the past three years it didn’t happen last time. And they now just as loudly claim vote-by-mail is unsafe. They are wrong.
Think how fearful so many of us are about identity theft or just plain theft from our bank accounts. We’re advised to change passwords frequently and to keep watch for unusual online activity. Think how frequently you hit the wrong computer key or send something off into cyberspace in error. We have become so enamored with computerizing everything, simply because we can.
There currently is a movement for requiring paper ballots in elections. I signed a petition in favor but wished I could add a codicil requiring the completed ballot then be put into the mail. With a copy kept behind for reference. I can’t even begin to imagine how hackers could change the results of an election conducted with paper ballots mailed from secure locations all over the country. But there’s Reason Number Two.
As for my Reason Number Three, assistance for elderly and/or disabled voters, it goes without saying that making the voting process easier for everyone is beneficial to democracy. What if a person, having intended to go to the polls, wakes up on election day too ill to leave the home with deadlines past for obtaining a mail-in ballot?
When I’d contemplated obtaining a ballot myself as a precaution this year, I found the rules in my district fairly simple. But regulations differ from state to state, and some are quite byzantine. Some states require absentee voting applications to be witnessed by another person, and even in some states notarized. And only certain excuses will pass muster. During Wisconsin’s April fiasco, voters complained the ballots they’d requested never arrived. I suppose some of those would-be voters could very well have ended up in line that day.
Exercising the right to vote should not be a grueling enterprise with hurdles thrown up along the way to be overcome. And we’ve certainly seen enough of that in recent times, starting with ridiculously gerrymandered voting districts. Along with insufficient numbers of polling stations, how about those placed far removed from any possible public transportation access? Or with polling days or hours that make it impossible for those without flexible work schedules? Another lousy choice: Lose a day’s pay or get to exercise your right to vote.
If the actual voting process could be made less onerous, more people would participate and become more interested and involved in the workings of our democracy. I would think our current president and others would be embarrassed to admit out loud that they prefer elections in which fewer voters participate because they think their side fares better. C’mon, really? Well, there you go: Reason Number Four.
And finally, Reason Number Five, support for the U.S. Postal Service, which our current president denigrates at every turn, calls “a joke,” and hopes to privatize into oblivion. When I first began thinking of this post, I planned to head it “Ben Franklin Must Be Rolling in His Grave.” But I learned that while the multi-talented Franklin was brought in to help with improvements to our emerging country’s postal services, many others among our founders and then leaders through ensuing years are credited with building the service into an envy of the world.
While I was thinking that all this deserved more time and space, and perhaps for another day’s post, Saturday’s New York Times jolted me with an article by Ted Widmer, a professor at the City University of New York, titled “The Postal Service Is Not ‘a Joke.” (Online, the title became “The Postal Service Is the Most American Thing We’ve Got.”)
I commend it to you and urge you to join me in becoming informed on the urgency of saving this worthy service, which, he writes, “was never supposed to be a moneymaking enterprise, or a political football. The founders understood that the reliable delivery of information was basic to democracy.”
Most alarming to me as I have been meandering about the subject of mail-in voting, was this observation from Widmer’s article: “Without major new funding, the service will run out of money in September, well before the November election — whose success may depend on a huge mail-in effort.”
Is that enough to get you moving? To be safe, find out what’s required in your state for mail-in voting and prepare yourself. Please.
The first time I voted in Pasadena was for this year’s May 3 primary election. As I stood in line admiring the beautiful architectural details in the second floor hallway of the old City Hall, volunteer poll workers appeared from time to time to give updates on the expected wait time both in the hall and once inside the room set up for voting. They also offered to accept any mail-in ballots voters had with them, sparing them further wait. That interested me; I guess the postmarked date was unimportant if you brought it right there on election day.
A new touch-screen computer system was being introduced, and once the line had moved close enough, I could see a young volunteer excitedly moving from one machine to another offering assistance. “He’s having fun, isn’t he?” I mentioned to the man ahead of me in line. I hoped the tech enthusiast would still be at it when my turn came to use his help. He was and he did. It all went quickly. “See you in November,” I told the volunteers. And then we all went into lockdown, and in-person voting became, at least for now, moot.