March 10 is a day I won’t soon forget. Classes had yet to be moved online, and I was clinging to the hope that I would get to finish my freshman year in Ann Arbor. Yet, that day, the coronavirus was not on my mind — voting was. It was primary day in Michigan and, like countless other students, I went to the polls and cast my vote, proudly sporting my sticker afterward. We were fortunate to have our election that day, as that very night Michigan was put under a state of emergency.
However, many other states were not as lucky. As the threat of COVID-19 forces millions of Americans to stay home and practice social distancing, many states have postponed their presidential primaries. Given that we do not know how long the outbreak will last, there are many lingering questions about whether voting in this critical election year can take place as it normally does. One option being explored is voting by mail, a unique system that should be considered not only during this crisis but as a possible permanent step toward more accessible and equitable voting in the future.
Although it has gained more attention due to coronavirus, voting by mail is not a new concept. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — virtually hold all their elections solely through the mail. In each state, a ballot is mailed to the address of every registered voter. The voter can then fill out their ballot and mail it in or drop it off at a certain location. While this system might sound strange to those of us who have only voted in person, the “vote by mail” system has benefits.
One of the most tangible benefits is an increase in voter turnout. Voter turnout in this country is abysmal. One of the contributing factors to these low turnout numbers is the inaccessibility of the polls for many people. Many places have chronic issues of long lines, with one man waiting almost seven hours just to vote in the Texas primary. Even with shorter wait times, getting to the polls can still be difficult for people. Not every person can find time on a Tuesday to go to the polls and cast their vote. This is especially true for those working hourly jobs. I was extremely privileged to have an accessible polling place minutes from my dorm and to have the time needed to cast my vote. The fact that the ballot box is not as accessible to others is unacceptable and is why we must reform our system.
Voting by mail addresses these issues by allowing people to fill out and return their ballot when it is convenient for them. The impact of voting by mail on turnout can be seen in Washington, Colorado and Oregon: All these states had 2016 voter turnout levels over the national average of 60.2 percent.
Voting by mail also allows people the time to think about who they want to vote for. Many people are not aware of every race on the ballot and may find themselves unsure of who to vote for when they get to the polls. Voting by mail helps solve this problem by allowing voters the time to research the candidates and mull over their options before deciding. I was reminded of this fact this past week while voting online for the University of Michigan Central Student Government election. Having access to my ballot for 48 hours allowed for me to research the CSG candidates, many of whom I did not know about previously.
Some may worry about the issue of voter fraud with non-in-person voting. Firstly, voter fraud is not the widespread systemic issue that some politicians want you to believe it is. Studies have shown that the overall rate of voter fraud is negligible. In many ways, mail-in voting is safer than in-person voting. Yes, it is possible that some people could submit a ballot that does not belong to them; however, in doing so they would be committing a crime and risking jail time. It is doubtful that many people would take this risk, therefore making fraud in the “vote by mail” states unlikely.
Voting by mail is safer than other types of voting because instead of machines that can break or that are potentially vulnerable to hackers, everything is done on paper. Paper cannot be hacked and leaves a trail that makes it easy for discrepancies to be addressed, ensuring the integrity of the voting results.
As a pragmatist, I realize that it is unlikely that even a pandemic will make us overhaul our entire voting system. Many people love casting their ballot in person and getting their stickers and are not ready to give that up. That is why we should look for a middle ground in regards to voting by mail by expanding the use of no-excuse absentee ballots.
No-excuse absentee ballots allow for any voter to vote via absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse if they can’t or don’t want to go to the polls on election day. In 2018, through Proposal 3, Michigan implemented this system, which has made voting more accessible. We saw a huge increase in the number of absentee ballots cast by mail in the March 10 primary — a true testament to what happens when voting becomes more accessible.
Our current voting system is simply not working for the majority of citizens. Too many Americans do not or cannot cast their votes. Voting by mail is one of our greatest resources to help try to solve this problem. By allowing people to submit their votes through the mail we can increase civic participation in this country and give voters the time to carefully consider who they vote for. Although the coronavirus has brought the issue of voting by mail to the forefront, I hope it is viewed as a long-term solution with the potential to be implemented beyond this election cycle. Whether it is instituting no-excuse absentee voting in every state or transitioning toward the highly successful systems in place in fully vote-by-mail states, these changes can help enfranchise more people.
Isabelle Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.