Last week, voters in Wisconsin were shamefully forced to choose between exercising their right to vote or adhering to social distancing. Voters stood in long lines and potentially were exposed to COVID-19, largely because powerful interests continue to stand against making voting easier and more convenient.
With Massachusetts’ primary election coming up on September 1, the Legislature should act quickly to both protect residents’ right to vote in the upcoming election, and improve voter participation for years to come.
Massachusetts should act immediately to allow for no-excuse absentee voting – not just in this election, but in all future elections. We should not wait and scramble to put a new system in place if the pandemic is still raging in late July or early August – we should act now, and take this commonsense step to expand voting access.
This prudent step would make sure voters – especially seniors, people with disabilities, and those with preexisting conditions – don’t feel pressured to stand in a crowded line in order to vote this year.
Allowing absentee voting for all who want it will also make it easier and more convenient for people to vote, even if they work two jobs, have childcare commitments, have long commutes, or face exhausting workdays that make it difficult to vote between the hours of 7 AM and 8 PM. Working-class voters are more likely to have jobs that don’t offer time to duck out and vote, or have childcare commitments that make it more difficult to make it to the polls on time. This situation gives wealthy voters disproportionate influence over our elections.
Paper ballots are the most secure and safe system for elections, and our local election departments already do a tremendous job handling the existing absentee balloting process. Senior citizens, troops serving overseas, and others regularly vote by mail now, and do so safely.
Over 30 states already offer absentee voting to all. Five states conduct their elections entirely by mail. Here in Massachusetts, we can have the best of both worlds, by allowing anyone to vote absentee while still opening the polls on Election Day.
We can also increase access for voters on Election Day by making it a state holiday, in order to make it easier for working people to go to the polls.
We should also consider other steps to protect our democracy and increase voter participation, including having an independent commission re-draw fair districts after the 2020 census instead of letting the Legislature pick its own districts; expanding the right to vote in municipal elections to 16- and 17-year olds to give young people a stake in the future of their communities; and getting big money out of politics.
Last but not least, we need to provide more funding to local Election Commissioners to hire and train election day staff, so that the voting process on Election Day is fairer and more efficient.
In Sweden, 83% of adults voted in their last election. In New Zealand, turnout was 76%; in Italy, 65% went to the polls. But here in the US, just 56% of eligible adults cast a ballot in the last presidential election. Turnout for local elections is even lower.
We can make our democracy healthier by improving voter turnout – but in order to do that, we need to take away barriers that keep people from people getting involved. The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for Massachusetts to both do the right thing by public health, and improve our democracy for years to come.