From Wired, an argument for worrying less about voting by mail because voting in person is still a fine way to do it.
Casting a ballot in person, it turns out, isn’t so dangerous after all. Early in the pandemic, this might have seemed a crazy thing to suggest. The Wisconsin primary, back in March, was widely described in apocalyptic tones. The New York Times called it “a dangerous spectacle that forced voters to choose between participating in an important election and protecting their health.” After state Democrats fought unsuccessfully to extend the deadline for mailing back absentee ballots, the ensuing photos of long lines at Milwaukee polling places seemed to presage an explosion of Covid-19 cases.
But the bomb never blew. As I observed in May, there was no noticeable rise in coronavirus cases thanks to the Wisconsin primary. A follow-up study by researchers at the City of Milwaukee Health Department and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, “No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election.” In fact, case numbers in Milwaukee were lower in the weeks after the election than in the weeks before it. There are caveats: In-person turnout was low overall thanks to broad use of mail-in ballots, and we don’t know how coronavirus prevalence in March will compare with November. Still, it’s telling that there have been no credible reports of virus spikes attributable to any other election this year, even though ill-considered polling place closures have led to further instances of Milwaukee-style overcrowding.
Why might voting be safer than expected? We now know that the coronavirus spreads mostly when people are in sustained indoor contact—settings like a restaurant, a bar, or a shared home or office. The risk of transmission in fleeting encounters, by contrast, is small. Outdoors, it is vanishingly so. Even the massive protests following the killing of George Floyd, which even sympathizers feared would seed outbreaks, did not, according to several large studies. The pandemic is really an indoor problem. Even the defining image of the danger of voting during a pandemic—lines around the block—serves to illustrate why there’s little to fear. For most people, standing in a spaced-out line, outdoors, while wearing masks, entails at most a paltry risk.
“I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason I can see why that’d not be the case,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a recent National Geographic event. “If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that.” Likewise, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice advises, “In-person voting can be conducted safely if jurisdictions take the necessary steps to minimize the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to voters and election workers.”
This assumes that any lines one may have to wait on will be primarily outside. That’s not been my experience in past elections, but I feel reasonably confident that outdoor lines will be the norm this time around. In Harris and Bexar and Dallas and hopefully other counties, there will be some larger venues, like convention centers and sports arenas, being used as voting locations, which will also help. Point being, I tend to agree with the assessment that the risk of in person voting, assuming widespread mask usage, is fairly minimal.
There are also practical considerations about voting by mail. Jamelle Bouie wrote in the Times that a key piece of Trump’s Election Day strategy is to delegitimize any votes that are not counted on Election Day. Remember how many elections Democrats won in 2018 due to mail ballots that weren’t counted until after Election Day? That’s been called the “blue shift”, and Donald Trump will scream from the rooftops that those mail ballots don’t count and amount to stealing the election if he’s in any position to claim a win on the evening of November 3, regardless of the lie of his statement. The best way to prevent that is to have as many votes counted by the time the news people start giving us numbers from around the country. That means voting in person. Note that in some states, even if your mail ballot is received way early, it may be the case that it won’t be officially tallied until Election Day, which could still lead to this situation. Voting in person will not have that problem.
Other concerns include the unknown potential for mail delivery delays, which G. Elliott Morris tried to quantify, and problems with mail ballots being rejected due to alleged signature mismatches or other issues, which is something that of course happens at a higher rate to Black and Latino voters. (Black voters are, understandably, more dubious about voting by mail.) The recent court order helps in this regard, but it’s still a factor, and we don’t know yet if there will be an appeal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but younger voters are just simply not used to using the postal service, and may have problems with mail ballots as a result. All of this may turn out to be minor, but maybe it won’t. We just don’t know. Again, the remedy here is to vote in person if that is a reasonable option for you.
Of course, to some extent in Texas, this is an academic point. The large majority of us cannot vote by mail, something the state leadership has done everything in its power to ensure will still be the case. I have said and will continue to say, if you do qualify for a mail ballot, by all means apply for it and use it. Having more people vote by mail not only keeps them safe, it also means shorter lines and faster processing times at voting locations, which is something we all want. Just be very prompt about it, and track your ballot to make sure it is received. Use a dropoff location if practical. The real point here is that we all actually do need to make a plan to vote, and that plan needs to encompass the when, the where, and the how. Be part of the solution to ensure that everyone can vote as easily and safely as possible. I don’t need to say how much is riding on that.