Voting by mail protects democracy and public health
If I were a fan of the coronavirus, here's what I'd like to see this fall: crowds of Americans standing in line for minutes or hours in venues where they can easily infect each other. By then, the contagion may be receding thanks to measures to combat it, or it may be going strong. Either way, Election Day could be a great boon to the disease, furnishing a trove of new victims.
There is a way to deprive the pandemic of this extraordinary opportunity: getting as many people as possible to cast their votes by mail instead of in person. It's an entirely doable response. But not everyone thinks saving lives is worth the trouble. One of them is Donald Trump, who voted by mail in Florida's March primary but doesn't think everyone else should.
He took great pride in doing an interview Sunday inside the Lincoln Memorial. This is one of those issues, though, on which he does not ask himself: What would Abe do? We have a good idea -- because it was during his presidency that absentee voting by mail originated so that soldiers in the Union Army could participate in the 1864 election.
Just as suppressing the slave states' rebellion was too important to force enlisted men to travel back home to vote, suppressing this virus is too important to force voters to choose between their health and their civic responsibility. And the more people who can be induced to vote by mail, the fewer opportunities there will be for the disease to spread.
We have confirmed the hazards of in-person voting during a pandemic. Illinois went ahead with an election on March 17, days before a statewide stay-at-home order. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he didn't have the authority to postpone it, but over the following four weeks, the state death toll from COVID-19 rose from 1 to 868.
Wisconsin voters had to troop to the polls on April 7, by which time the danger of doing so had become apparent to everyone. Of those who voted in person or worked at a voting site, 52 tested positive for the virus over the following two weeks.
Five states have also proven the practicality of shifting to voting by mail. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington send mail-in ballots to every registered voter, eliminating the need to go to the polls. It's simple, efficient, inexpensive and far more sanitary.
It would cost money in the short run, which is why it makes sense for the federal government to provide aid to state governments. Because of the toll from the pandemic and its economic fallout, they are already short of funds. In the long run, the shift would probably save money.
Most states, including Illinois, already allow any voter to request an absentee ballot, while 16 states require a valid excuse. But more than 90% of Illinois voters don't bother. Making the process of getting a mail-in ballot automatic would induce many more people to use it.
Even if you prefer voters to exercise the franchise at their local sites -- and even if most of them would prefer to -- the threat argues for furnishing another option. No one knows how widespread COVID-19 will be come November. A surge in cases, or a deadly mutation of the virus, could make in-person voting even more dangerous.
At worst, sending out ballots provides a workable Plan B in case Plan A proves too hazardous. As the nonpartisan group Reform for Illinois argues, "Sending a ballot is the only way to guarantee that everyone has the option of voting safely on Election Day, even if in-person voting must be restricted for public health reasons."
In New York, which normally requires an excuse for absentee voting Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring mail ballots to be sent to every registered voter for the June primary.
Trump opposes such a change because voting entirely by mail is "ripe for fraud" and because it "doesn't work out well for Republicans." In fact, states with all-mail elections have experienced very little fraud, and an April Reuters/Ipos poll found that 65% of GOP voters favor requiring mail-in ballots for the November election if the pandemic continues. This year, it's older Americans -- the most Republican age group -- who are most likely to be scared away from the polls.
Plenty of people have died to protect American democracy. No one should have to die to participate in it.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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