A reluctant convert to vote-by-mail

I’m a big vote-in-person guy, but not at the risk of spreading infection.

I’m a big vote-in-person guy, but not at the risk of spreading infection.

A blog by Kirk Weinert, senior writer and advisor for The Public Interest Network, of which U.S. PIRG is a part.

Voting by mail. Photo: Chris Phan via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

I feel most American and most a part of my neighborhood when I’m standing in line on Election Day at my local polling place.

But that experience isn’t worth dying for.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) drives down voter turnout (as we’ve just seen in Wisconsin) and threatens the lives of the many senior citizens who serve as poll workers, I’ve become a reluctant convert to and now staunch supporter of conducting elections in an emergency by mail.

This is no small step for me.

I live in Colorado, where every registered voter gets their ballots delivered to their homes. All we have to do is fill it out and mail it in or drop it off at the nearest neighborhood drop box. Nonetheless, I have continued to troop down to the nearby senior center on Election Day, bringing my daughter to perform our secular sacrament.

I do so in part to honor my mother, who was a volunteer poll worker for decades. And I do so in part to give my daughter the same civics lesson my mother gave me, when she let me reach up high to close the polling booth curtain and flick down the little vote levers on the machine for her choices.

But admittedly, I do it first and foremost for the immediate pleasure of the experience. There’s something both comforting and empowering about joining my fellow citizens on a shared mission in a building I might otherwise never enter. 

First was the Jewish community center in my overwhelmingly Christian hometown of Allentown, Pa. Later was the Knights of Columbus hall in Boston’s Italian-American-dominated North End, where old women warily eyed non-paisans like me. Then, the lifeguard headquarters — straight out of “Baywatch” — on Venice Beach.

And the people you meet and briefly chat with (ironically, about anything but partisan politics) — well, let’s just say that a democracy takes all types.

If I had my druthers, everyone would vote on a single day in a rotating set of polling places no more than a few blocks from their homes. It would be a civic holy day, with a week-long national countdown to the event — perhaps most analogous now to football’s Super Bowl. Poll workers would be honored like kings. And vote counters would be given all the time and money needed to get the results as right as possible.

There’d be none of the “oops, I’ve changed my mind” stuff that resulted in 24 percent of the state of Washington’s 2020 Democratic presidential primary vote being cast for candidates who had dropped out before Election Day.

And there wouldn’t be any of those (exceedingly rare) cases where a political operative “accidentally” loses ballots he’s promised to deliver to the authorities. 

But that dream can’t be realized in the real world without disenfranchising huge chunks of the population, including shut-ins, people working multiple jobs, and travellers. And, if I have to choose between “nice civic experience” and “maximizing voter turnout,” I’ll go with the latter every time, for the long-term sake of our country, and no matter which party or ideology benefits from the increased number of voters.

Right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us are required to be “shut-ins” to slow the spread of the virus, and there’s incredible uncertainty around when that will end.

There’s no way I would go to a polling place any time soon with my daughter and potentially risk infecting the poll workers and vice versa. And voters everywhere shouldn’t have to choose between their life and participating in democracy.

So, I’ll be looking forward to getting my ballot for Colorado’s upcoming elections from our friendly local mailman. On Election Day, I’ll let my daughter help me fill in the ovals in the comfort of our living room. And I’ll drop the envelope in the mailbox early enough to get to the vote counters on time.

If you don’t have that opportunity in your state, call on your governor and state elected officials to adopt “universal emergency vote by mail”. This would ensure that every registered voter gets a ballot mailed to them — much like Colorado’s current system.

Someday, social distancing will come to an end. When it does, I’ll be back to my old-school voting style.

If you can, I hope you’ll join me. There’s nothing like the high of democracy to make your day.

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