For a New Yorker, space is the rarest, hottest of commodities. I’ve often found myself daydreaming of having a lawn or, more modestly, a small porch or balcony. Hell, I’d even take a fire escape. Like many people, I just want some small quotient of open space. It’s really very American of me.
With the coronavirus, space, or at least a six foot bubble of it, is now also necessary for maintaining our health. That necessity is crashing disastrously into another American institution: election day at our polling places.
The traditional voting experience — standing in line with our neighbors, shaking hands with the poll worker handing us our ballots, and all of us using the same pen to choose our next elected officials — is a danger not only to ourselves but also to those neighbors and poll workers.
Our current situation demands that we untether ourselves from our traditional voting model — the idea that everyone votes on one day at one place. We need to create more space, literally, for people to engage in the electoral process.
In most places, buildings large enough to create space for every voter frankly don’t exist. Under normal circumstances, we sometimes see long lines extending outside and around our polling places. Imagine if we needed a six foot buffer between each voter.
We need to expand our concept of the polling place to make voting more accessible. Specifically, the current crisis demands that we expand access to voting by mail.
Every state in America has some form of vote-by-mail. Some, including Colo. and Ore., use it exclusively. Others, like Ariz., allow voters to opt into getting absentee ballots mailed to them for every election. Most voters in Ariz. take advantage of that. And all states let you vote by mail if you have an excuse for why you aren’t available to make it to the polls on election day.
During a pandemic, we all have an extremely good reason not to head to the polls. At this point, every state needs to acknowledge that fact and prepare for an emergency, all-absentee election. That means being prepared to directly mail all registered voters an absentee ballot, so we can make our voices heard from the space and safety of our own homes.
Vote-by-mail isn’t a perfect solution, even in normal times. There are important protections provided by the secret ballot, and having the ballot in hand at home, or outside of the voting booth, enables potential abuse. But in an emergency like this, there is no better solution, especially if we make additional accommodations for voters that either can’t access or have difficulty voting by mail. Under these circumstances, we need to do the best we can to create the much needed space for all of us to vote safely.
These days, my lawn dreams have been supplanted by thoughts that maybe, hopefully, in November it’s safe again to congregate with our neighbors. But until then, I hope you’ll join me in urging our elected officials — the very people we’re hoping to vote for this fall — to make sure our democracy can still function, despite the pandemic.