Opinion

KOLB: It’s Time For Voting By Mail

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the U.S. should make every effort to create an efficient mail-in voting system by November 3. You can find a counterpoint here, where Kenneth Timmerman, best-selling author and journalist, argues that mail-in voting is far too open for fraud and abuse to be a reliable method of conducting the November election.

Perhaps the most important role citizens can play in a democracy is electing the people who govern them.

With our increasingly fragmented and polarized society, there’s relatively little that Americans have in common these days.. Other than breathing the same air, about the only other common experiences shared by most Americans are paying taxes and trying to avoid catching the coronavirus.

Voting should be one of those shared American experiences, and we should do everything possible to maximize voter turnout and to ensure against irregularities, mistakes, fraud, corruption and foreign interference. After all, gaining the right to vote has, throughout our history, been an important civil rights objective.

August seems to be “voting month” in American history. Women secured the right to vote a century ago, on August 26, 1920, with the enactment of the 19th Amendment, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act officially extended the vote to black women on August 6, 1965. (Black men obtained the right to vote in 1870 with passage of the post-Civil War 15th Amendment, although their ability to exercise that right was not fully protected for nearly another century).

It’s surprising, given our voting rights history, that we have a relatively low voter turnout among the industrialized democracies comprising the 37-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2016, U.S. voter turnout was 56 percent, versus the unweighted OECD average of 65.6 percent.

Have we become jaded and complacent? Do we somehow take this precious right for granted?

Starting with 2000’s “hanging chads” in Florida, which threw that year’s presidential election outcome into question for weeks, we’ve seen several controversies surrounding the process of voting. Thus far, the documented instances of outright voter fraud appear to be few. Nonetheless, questions about the security, accuracy, reliability and timeliness of our voting procedures continue to arise.

In the old days, voting was relatively simple. On election day, you went to your local polling place, stood in line, voted, got your “I Voted” sticker and left.  If you knew you’d be out of town on election day, were ill or deployed in the military, you could request in advance an absentee ballot. The actual mechanisms used to count votes may have varied (machine tabulation, scanners, manual counts), but the process itself was mostly straightforward, albeit marred in some situations by walk-around money, intimidation, voter suppression and misinformation.

Today’s voting environment is altogether more complex, as states have adopted widely varying practices. We’ve gone from a national election day to a host of different approaches. Oregon began issuing all ballots via mail in 2000, and Colorado is a universal vote-by-mail state. Today’s fundamental problem is that we have a federal system with national elections that also occur simultaneously with state and local elections. Our non-uniform system lacks consistency, is often cumbersome and thereby fosters skepticism and distrust.

When you add COVID-19 to this complex, fragmented system, we have additional challenges. How do we maximize voter participation when standing in line to vote, even with social distancing, might prompt some voters to skip voting altogether? Not every state today, for example, recognizes fear of the coronavirus as a legitimate excuse for obtaining an absentee ballot.

We are quintessentially a consumer society where 70 percent of our Gross Domestic Product comes from consumer spending, in person, through the mails and online.  We’re also a participatory democracy, and we need to explore new ways of maximizing participation at the ballot “box” given today’s changing circumstances.

We’re not yet ready for online voting, given the security and related issues with the internet, but there should be no problems with voting by mail if our election officials act promptly to communicate with all Americans eligible to vote about how and when to vote by mail, provide sufficient assurances that every vote will be accurately counted, strengthen oversight to ensure against fraud and manipulation, and avoid the type of sustained uncertainty recently experienced in a New York congressional primary.

The National Association of State Election Directors should take the lead now with the National Governors Association and the bipartisan Congressional leadership (Senators McConnell and Schumer; House Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader McCarthy) to launch a nationwide campaign between now and November 3 to clarify this year’s election process, streamline mail-in voting as much as possible and reduce state-to-state inconsistencies.

A healthy democracy requires maximum citizen participation. We now have less than three months to get all of this right.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House