Op-ed: Michigan elections during the time of COVID-19

Sunday, May 3, 2020 - 8:44pm

During Michigan's 2020 presidential primary, I spent over seven hours working as a ballot verification specialist at the Ann Arbor City Hall polling place. Largely due to the 2018 voting reforms that allow for same-day voter registration to vote on Election Day, I worked directly with hundreds of people to ensure that they had the right documents and other preparatory items, so the city clerk and her staff could register voters as quickly as possible on that very hectic day. However, with the rise of COVID-19, what worries me now is the “directly” part of that last sentence. 

Between Trump administration officials hoping to reopen the country as soon as possible and the Harvard School of Public Health coming out with a new study suggesting that social distancing measures may need to last into 2022 if a vaccine is not discovered, it is practically impossible to tell when people will be able to interact in public again, a process crucial for many voters in every election. Even though it seems that things could normalize by the end of May (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order expires May 15), there is still good reason to be wary of change as countries like Japan ended up facing a “second wave” of COVID-19 cases. If the social distancing measures Michiganders faced in March and April were to continue into November, based on the number of people that showed up in-person at only a single polling place, the voter turnout for Michigan may be significantly reduced. 

That being said, what should be done if social distancing requirements continue through November? While continuing to encourage absentee voting is a good first step, more drastic measures may need to be taken. Absentee ballots have ranged between 25.4 percent to 26.5 percent of Michigan voter turnout in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 state-wide elections — which is similar to the 27 percent or around 2 million voters who cast a vote in 2018. In order to capture any losses from the latter statistic, a fully vote-by-mail system should be used. In this system, unlike absentee ballot voting, all registered voters will receive mailable ballots — not just those who ask for them — and in-person polling places will be closed down and restricted in accordance with standing public health protocols. 

This system is already being executed in communities who held local elections on May 5 in Michigan. It will not only protect the aforementioned voters and their turnout numbers, but also the health of Michigan poll workers whose average age is 76 and are, therefore, at an increased risk for contracting the virus or passing away from COVID-19. Michigan’s government should also cover the necessary expenses for mail-in voting, such as providing postage stamps, although finding a way to pay for this may generate controversy. Nationally, five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, Utah and Oregon — already have a vote-by-mail system in place for this coming November, with 21 other states having similar laws for more local elections. Even if this pandemic dissipates before the presidential election, voting by mail should always be an option because one can never know when the next great disaster will strike and elections must go on regardless.

Tuhin Chakraborty is a junior in the Ford School of Public Policy and can be reached at tchakra@umich.edu