The United States Senate passed a $2 trillion coronavirus economic relief package on Wednesday—which included $400 million for states to add early voting and vote-by-mail to their elections. That could be just the beginning of a national overhaul to make more states' elections function the way Oregon's do.
If you’ve ever lived in a state other than Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, or Utah—the five states in the nation that have a full vote-by-mail system—then you probably know that voting is typically not well-suited to healthy social distancing practices. In-person voting can mean long lines, dozens of people packed into a building, and highly used touchpoints like tables, computer screens, and levers.
In the last few weeks, the spread of COVID-19 has already prompted several states to either delay their primary elections or convert them to mail-only, so that residents don’t have to vote in person at a time when public health experts and state governments are urging them to stay home.
“The rest of the country is realizing that Oregon has it right—vote by mail is increasingly looking like the only way for states to conduct elections,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, who represents Oregon, in a recent media statement. “If Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Kentucky had vote by mail on the books years ago, they wouldn't have had to cancel their [recent primary] elections.”
The Senate's $2 trillion relief package includes funding for early voting and vote-by-mail—spending championed by Wyden, as well as Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons. But election experts worry that $400 million won't be nearly enough to help states transition to vote-by-mail.
In addition to including funding in that relief package, Wyden is also the sponsor of a separate bill that would provide more sweeping changes to state electoral systems. That bill, also sponsored by Oregon’s Sen. Jeff Merkley and Klobuchar, would require states to offer “no-excuse” absentee voting, meaning anyone could receive an absentee mail-in ballot. The bill would also provide stamps for all mail-in ballots, and require all states to have an emergency remote voting plan in place in case of a destabilizing crisis—such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In a press release announcing the bill, Merkley took the opportunity to boast about Oregon’s existing vote-by-mail system.
“Mail-in-voting is a tried and true voting method that would allow Americans to vote without having to travel to polling places or gather in crowds,” he said, “and it’s been massively successful in Oregon for nearly four decades.”
While the current national push for vote-by-mail is because of the coronavirus, the benefits of it extend beyond social distancing. In-person voting can take hours out of a person’s day, and that’s easier for someone with financial and systemic resources to pull-off than for someone who’s juggling multiple low-wage jobs and familial responsibilities. Studies show that vote-by-mail can reduce disparities in voter turnout among different groups, and can be especially helpful for increasing turnout in less-flashy elections—like school board races and bond measures, for example—that voters might otherwise be inclined to skip. It's also considerably cheaper for states to manage than in-person voting.
It’s not clear if the vote-by-mail bill will pass before the 2020 general election. But it’s possible that an eventual nationwide vote-by-mail system could be one of the few silver linings of the coronavirus.