By Stephen Cobb, Paul Reagan, Ashley Taylor and Sarah E. Hunt
The right to vote is the bedrock of our democratic society, but without a functioning voting infrastructure, the right to vote is an abstract right with no practical impact. COVID-19 is but the latest in a long line of events, some natural, some manmade, to test our commitment to ensuring a strong voting infrastructure.
Some states have deferred elections and others are considering following course. Virginia should lead by example and take the necessary steps to reinforce our voting infrastructure. We cannot be certain of what the future holds, but we can take the proactive steps necessary to ensure that our democratic processes are prepared for a new normal.
Over the past three months, Virginia has made great strides in expanding access to the electoral process by making improvements in several key areas: developing bipartisan redistricting reform, improving and — in some cases — eliminating unnecessary voter ID laws, creating no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration.
When the General Assembly adjourned sine die, we all took great pride in these accomplishments. However, we live in a world that is very different from the one of even just a few weeks ago, and the COVID-19 crisis demands we re-examine what additional steps we can undertake.
Making the necessary preparations to ensure the mechanics of our democratic process requires further legislative action — including, in some cases, appropriations and collaboration with the federal government — to ensure the right to vote does not become an abstract right found only in our historical documents.
First, we need to expand opportunities to vote by mail. Today, five states conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. While permanently expanding Virginia to vote entirely by mail is something to debate, the need to expand voting by mail for the coming election cycle is mandatory. Contrary to some assertions, this is a safe and secure alternative to voting in person.
Second, we need to expand voting opportunities more generally. We can increase engagement and awareness for requesting an absentee ballot electronically, and we can provide postage for all absentee ballots. Voters should not have to pay to exercise their democratic responsibility in a manner that protects public health concerns. Expanding opportunities to vote by mail is not just the right thing to do now, it is good public policy in any circumstance.
Third, we also must ensure that we are making in-person voting more accessible and safe. This means not only making sure that the voting locations are appropriate in size and location, but that they are appropriately staffed. Too often, we have witnessed election days fraught with stories of long lines, as thousands across our commonwealth (and in states across the country) waited hours for the chance to cast their ballot. That burden is no longer just undemocratic, it is a public health concern. We need to ensure that every locality has the staff and the machinery to make election day quick, convenient and safe.
The past several weeks have been a time of uncertainty and upheaval. While we all learn to adapt to trials of COVID-19, our leaders are faced with the unenviable task of dealing with new emergencies in real time. Resources are stretched thin and uncertainty abounds. These actions will take great effort beyond the passage of a bill and the appropriation of the necessary funds.
Our state, our localities and we as individuals all have a part to play. There will be needs for recruiting volunteers, additional election officials and educating the public on the ways they may vote. It will take months of effort — from all parties.
This is a fluid situation. Each day and each week, we see states and localities trying to make the necessary plans for elections. As we look down the barrel of the next many months, there are some changes we have had to make that will hopefully return to a pre-COVID-19 normal, and some changes will forever be the new normal.
One of the areas that demands our immediate attention is ensuring that our elections and democratic processes remain steadfast and beyond repute. Together, we can make this happen. This is not a partisan issue — this is about ensuring every Virginian’s right to vote, to do so safely and to have their vote counted.