Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022
Most United States citizens have certain expectations when they go to their polling station; voters expect to stand in a line, to be handed a ballot by an official, or to vote on a touch screen system. Yet, amid COVID-19, for many Americans, going to a polling station presents too many opportunities for the transmission of the virus. As a result of the danger of voting in-person and the desire to vote by mail, it is projected that the United States Postal Services (hereinafter “USPS”) will deliver an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots.
However, in light of recent events, it has become unclear whether the USPS will be able to execute an unprecedented mail-in election. In response to this uncertainty, state election officials have proposed limiting who could vote by mail to COVID-19 positive persons, extending deadlines to vote, and waiving mail-in voters’ usual signature responsibilities. Although state officials disagree on which measures to enact, all officials agree: vote early. However, the United States requires a more reliable method of voting in the 2020 election, such that state and local officials need to implement masking and sanitizing protocols at polling stations, and Congress needs to appropriate funds, so that USPS can acquire needed staff and equipment and prioritize ballot delivery as first-class mail.
How Did We Get Here?
This spring as Americans began to expect the USPS to play a big part in the voting process, Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, after his appointment on May 6, 2020, implemented cost-cutting policies within mail services. The policies included a hiring freeze, banning overtime, prohibiting additional trips to deliver mail, and removing sorting equipment used to process mail. As a result of the implementation, the USPS has experienced delivery delays and heightened tension between postal officials and lawmakers. Although DeJoy has since suspended some of the cost-cutting initiatives which created delays, Americans continue to debate the reasoning behind these policy changes. Some Americans believe that President Trump asked DeJoy, his personal friend, to implement these changes to rig the election. On the other hand, other Americans feel that this narrative of corruption is a strategic political attack to sway voters against voting for President Trump. Media coverage of the USPS has only added gas to the fire; instead of focusing on the insolvency of USPS and the steps that need to be taken to assure the delivery of mail-in ballots, the media has turned conversations about the USPS into a highly political debate about involved parties’ intentions.
As every candidate in the democratic primaries stated, this may be the most important election of our lives. Democrats argue that the country needs restoration and unity, while Republicans argue that President Trump was a successful president prior to COVID-19 and the United States needs to return to that success. However, both parties agree that this pandemic will culturally change the United States, whether temporarily or for the long-term, and the sitting president will have tremendous power in the way that the United States reopens and addresses issues such as immigration, health care, and the economy. Due to the significance of this election, the United States needs to expand the safety protocols and mail-in practices, to assure eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote.
Comparison of the Options
Automatic mail-in ballots have many advantages. They can mitigate potential infection at a polling station, as voters would not have to stand in lines or touch anything that is unsanitized. They also ensure that everyone who is eligible and wishes to vote, may do so. Additionally, automatic mail-in ballots take into account that many states’ voter registration databases are outdated or inaccurate.
However, there are also disadvantages to this process. According to the United States Election Assistance Commission, roughly one percent of mail-in ballots in the 2016 election were not counted, and it is still unclear how many millions of ballots were lost in transit. Additionally, following a USPS announcement of delayed mail-in ballots in 46 states, many voters have lost trust in what was once America’s favorite government agency. There is also the concern that the system cannot prohibit fraud (although the magnitude of voter fraud has historically been exaggerated) and the possibility that voters will receive the wrong ballot and have no opportunity to remedy this inaccuracy.
On the other hand, voting in-person also has advantages, including mitigating the problems of automatic mail-in ballots; no ballots will be lost in transit, and there is not the same threat of voter fraud. Additionally, states already have systems setup to execute elections, and in-person voting does not require states to buy envelopes and scanners suitable to the quantity of mail-in ballots.
However, the disadvantages are also apparent, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is inherent to gathering people in large groups, as is expected with in-person voting. Furthermore, projections show that many voters who were at risk or were fearful of COVID-19 may decide not to vote. Additionally, in abiding by social distancing guidelines, it is unclear if there would be enough time for everyone to vote in person, and whether voters would all have access to a polling station.
If either process was executed alone, the general election would be tainted with distorted results. If it was all automatic mail-in ballots, we could expect that votes would not be counted due to delays with the USPS, whereas if states executed solely in-person voting, these states will experience reduced voter turnout. However, in demanding that state and local officials create safety protocols to assure in-person voter safety, and that Congress allocate funds to the USPS, the United States could use a combination of the processes, to assure that all eligible voters can vote.