Monday, August 10, 2020

How to Vote Safely During a Pandemic

The 2020 elections may rank as the most important elections since 1932, when Americans faced a fundamental choice over the direction of the country.  America's choices today also are fundamental and have been etched into acutely sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The varying responses to the disease from different politicians and government officials, with their contrasting implications for health, life and death, vividly illustrate the importance of voting this year. But going to the polls on Election Day could involve a major health risk.  So how can one vote safely?

There are a number of alternatives to going to the polls.  They vary from state to state, so you may not have all the options listed below.  The only way to know for sure what your state allows is to check with the state's election officials.  The rules in some states are even now being changed--by government officials and by judicial decisions, as courtroom battles over voting have already begun--and may continue to change up until the moment you cast your ballot.  So the information here can't be guaranteed to be fully accurate and up to date.  But here's an overview of choices you may have, depending on your home state.

Voting by mail is perhaps the safest way, from a health standpoint, to cast a ballot.  You can just fill out the ballot at home and mail it.  Sometimes, you can drop it off in a designated drop box at municipal location, or have an agent mail or return the ballot.  Voting by mail falls into three categories. 

     Absentee ballots  requiring a specific, legally permitted reason for not being able to go to the polls, such as a physical disability, being out of town on Election Day, service in the military, and so on. 

     Early voting by mail without need for an excuse, which is now available in about 30 states.

     Mail-voting only elections, which are conducted in five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington). 

The first two options--absentee ballots and early voting by mail--require you to apply for a mail ballot.  Typically, you can do this by submitting a mailed or online request.  A few states allow telephone requests.  States with the third option--mail voting only--mail ballots as a matter of course to all registered voters.

There have been controversies over the delivery of mailed ballots (see  Sometimes, questions have also been raised about agents permitted to collect and return ballots.  It's best to mail or submit a ballot yourself.  Make sure you trust any agent you use to submit your ballot. But don't let these delivery issues deter you from voting by mail if you feel it's your best choice.  Responsible Americans are working very hard to ensure the validity of voting by mail, and we should not now shrink from exercising our franchise as citizens in whatever way we think is best.

Early voting involves going to a designated place (usually a local government office, but sometimes other locations as well) before Election Day and voting in person.  The time period for early voting can begin as early as 45 days before the election, or as little as a few days, depending on the state.  While early voting requires you to go to a public office, it may involve less congestion and waiting than going to a polling station on Election Day.  So your health risks may be lower.  And it is one way to ensure that your ballot gets into the hands of election officials.

Online voting, where you vote from a cell phone or other computing device, is in its infancy.  Early experiments have raised security concerns and there is very limited online voting in America.  If you have this option (and very few of you will), think carefully about the possibility that a hacker may vote for you, and if you don't like that idea, consider your other choices.  But, whatever your choice, remember to vote.