Drastic social distancing efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus have raised questions about how to hold upcoming presidential nominating contests, as crowded polling places and caucus gatherings could be breeding grounds for the virus.
On Friday, Louisiana officially became the first state to announce it was pushing back its previously scheduled April 4 primary until June 20 in an effort to stop the virus’ spread.
But experts who have been advocating for all-mail elections say situations like the one in Louisiana could have been avoided if more states had already adopted all-mail voting systems — and that this could be the turning point in the all-mail election movement.
“What the current crisis does is it just sheds a new light on the merits of this system,” Phil Keisling, who sits on the board of the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates for all-mail voting, said in an interview. “And at a minimum, it might be a strategy by which states can navigate through this unprecedented moment.”
Keisling helped implement the first all-mail election for the vacant U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Ron Wyden in December 1995, when he served as Oregon secretary of state.
That election not only saw record turnout, but may have also prevented disaster as the state was experiencing a damaging wind storm that could have caused voting problems.
“Much of the state was hit by a major windstorm that brought 100 mph winds to large portions of the Coast and interior valleys — and the emergency authorities were all urging Oregonians affected to stay home unless they absolutely needed to get out of house,” Keisling said. “Many lost their power.”
He added, “Quite honestly, I’m not sure, looking back, what we could have done. Could the governor have declared an emergency, and suspended the election, or moved the day? Fortunately, we never had to find out.”
Now, Oregon is one of three states to hold all-mail elections, after Colorado and Washington State adopted the voting method.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic raised concerns about the safety of in-person voting, the National Conference of State Legislatures said the voting method was having an impact, decreasing long waits at polling places, saving states money, and increasing turnout.
More states are seeing vote-by-mail numbers grow as they lower barriers to absentee voting. For example, 59 of ballots in California’s 2016 Democratic primary were vote-by-mail, according to the Los Angeles Tim percentes.
Keisling noted that it would be hard for states such as Louisiana — which currently only allow absentee ballots if a voter has an approved excuse — to suddenly shift to an all-mail election right away in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If only 1 percent or 5 percent of your vote is coming in from mail ballots, it’s a huge challenge to ramp that up,” Keisling said.
“That said,” he added, “this health problem might be such that people even in those states are going to have to seriously look at” all-mail voting.
For now, it’s unclear if more states will go the route of Louisiana and postpone their elections, or work to implement all-mail elections before November, when the virus still could be impacting life in the United States.
On Tuesday, four important states — Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio — will head to the polls in the Democratic presidential primary. Election officials in those states say they are prepared, and have advised voters to use proper hygiene when they vote.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign is advising voters to use common sense.
“If voters are members of an at-risk population, exhibiting symptoms, or have been exposed to a diagnosed case of COVID-19, we encourage them to explore absentee ballots and vote by mail options,” the Biden campaign said in a statement, according to CBS News’ Caitlin Huey-Burns.
But Keisling said he hopes more states look to all-mail elections in the wake of this crisis.
“We never wanted to be in a position of having our reform getting this kind of attention for this kind of reason,” Keisling said. “But the abnormal time we’re in has put it in the spotlight in some new ways, and again we think that it’s something that is worth people giving really serious thought to as they grapple with serious issues.”
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.