In just a few months, Michiganders will cast their ballots in the general election.
Few circumstances make the case for mail-in voting -- also known as absentee voting -- more urgent to our democracy than a global pandemic that has killed 148,000 Americans in five months and sickened 4.2 million more.
In addition to ensuring every voter has the option of participating in our democracy remotely, Michigan must also reimagine what in-person voting in the age of social distancing will look like. As the virus continues to take lives and bring down our economy, we can’t afford NOT to make these changes.
From a medical perspective, COVID-19 is a new virus that we are still learning about every day. What we know is the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 can move from person to person easily, transported on microscopic droplets from coughing, talking and even just breathing, with growing evidence indicating they could also be airborne, suspended in the air as droplet nuclei. To minimize transmissions, public health experts and physicians have been urging universal mask wearing and social distancing.
Clearly, our old voting procedures alone won’t work. Neither will pretending the pandemic doesn’t exist. The more than 7.5 million registered Michigan voters deserve the right to cast their ballots without having to choose between their lives and their right to vote.
While some politicians argue that expanding our tried and tested absentee voting system to more voters is risky, as a physician and an election official, we argue that the real risk to voting this year is the threat of sickness, even death, to voters, and not more people voting absentee.
That’s why it’s absolutely critical that we work together toward safety-first reforms, implemented quickly and comprehensively.
Michigan voters said they want their elections to be more convenient and with fewer barriers when they passed Proposal 3, which included no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration, by a 2-to-1 margin in 2018. The voters spoke, and the result is even more important during the pandemic.
The surest way to avoid exposure to COVID-19 is to stay home and away from other people. In November, the best way to do this is mailing in an absentee ballot. In addition to mailing back their completed ballots, voters should also be able to drop them off at secure locations to avoid personal contact.
But we must also make in-person voting safer.
Some voters, for personal or circumstantial reasons, prefer or must go to a polling location to cast their ballots. Voters who require assistance reading what’s on their ballot deserve to participate in our democracy as much as every other voter. Voters who are less likely to have a permanent address where absentee ballots can be mailed tend to vote in person more frequently as well.
As such, policymakers can meet voters where they are, with their safety and convenience in mind, the same way small business owners, medical clinics and other establishments are adapting to better serve customers, clients and patients.
Physicians and health experts repeatedly warn against crowding people in confined, poorly ventilated indoor spaces, such as polling stations located in schools, or worse, facilities serving elderly or vulnerable people. Michigan could give local clerks more flexibility to expand the number of polling locations and the duration of voting, such as longer hours or early voting, to stagger the number of voters over several days and across more locations.
We can avert what happened in Georgia’s June primary elections, when thousands of people waited in line for hours and thousands more were likely disenfranchised in large part because Georgia closed 214 polling locations — serving mostly Black communities.
We can avoid what happened in Wisconsin in their April primary, when their partisan Supreme Court blocked a request to delay the vote, resulting in long lines during a pandemic. At least 52 Wisconsin voters and poll workers, and likely many more, were infected with COVID-19.
Instead of undermining the U.S. Postal Service and voters’ faith in it, politicians can strengthen our mail infrastructure so it can continue to serve all Americans in urban, suburban and rural communities -- and deliver their absentee ballots securely. Instead of fear-mongering about vote-by-mail fraud, reported only 491 times from all absentee ballots cast between 2000 and 2012, policymakers from both parties can boost voter confidence through statewide voter information efforts, something local elections officials such as Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck and others are already doing.
For many, voting has never been a foregone conclusion. Poll taxes, literacy tests and voter ID restrictions have sought to suppress -- and often succeeded in suppressing -- voter participation. Erosions to the 1965 Voting Rights Act continue to prevent whole communities, mostly people of color, from practicing their right to vote as Americans. Now, a biological catastrophe threatens to derail the upcoming general election. Human chicanery and political defiance must not worsen the situation.
Instead of harping about what we can’t do, we should focus on real steps we can take to keep voting safe and secure during a pandemic. By acting now, the Legislature has an opportunity to protect people and the future of our democracy.