As the novel coronavirus continues to take its toll on America, the debate surrounding mail-in voting has grown increasingly prevalent. Though the option protects the health and safety of Americans, it presents a long-standing issue in American history: voter suppression.
Mail-in, or absentee, voting can protect both voters and poll workers alike come November. For some states like Georgia, this option is also available for the presidential primary. However, Georgia’s absentee ballot request forms already present problems with the process. Instead of including prepaid postage, the forms required voters to add a 55-cent stamp . Alternatively, a voter could email their ballot requests to the county elections office. This poses a challenge to populations that are disproportionately affected by both coronavirus and voter suppression, such as fixed-income individuals, older voters and rural residents. These groups may not have the means or opportunity to obtain stamps from the post office. Similarly, individuals may not possess the technology, internet capability, or know-how to scan and email the request form to the elections office. Such hindrances violate the Constitution, which explicitly forbids all forms of poll taxes in the 24th Amendment . Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Harper v. Virginia, Georgia’s option for electronic transmission does not resolve this issue, as it makes voter affluence an electoral standard, which violates the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment .
Additionally, Georgia’s current deadline for receipt of the absentee ballot is 7 p.m. on May 19. Voters who postmark their ballots too close to the deadline may not have their votes counted. With millions of pieces of paper to process, administrative delays or postal issues could result in some voters receiving their ballots in too short a time to return it by May 19. To resolve this issue, State Senator Nikema Williams has advocated for the acceptance of all ballots postmarked by Election Day .
Another issue that some public officials, most notably President Trump, have addressed is voter fraud. Though fraud is rare in Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has established a task force to examine mismatched voter signatures, multiple voters at one address, and voters with nonresidential addresses . While voter fraud may seem to be a legitimate concern, scrutiny of minor errors or inconsistencies can disenfranchise voters, as Georgia has seen in the 2018 gubernatorial election . Furthermore, long standing vote-by-mail states have debunked voter fraud myths. For example, Washington state explained that ballot envelopes must be signed, that clerks call voters if there are ballot issues, and that it resolved the few cases of people voting twice. Of the 4.4 million ballots cast in Washington’s last election, officials flagged less than 100, and none of them led to a criminal investigation .
The real controversy here is between voter disenfranchisement and fear of losing power. President Trump has asserted that vote-by-mail has the potential to weaken his party. This is because vote-by-mail, if executed fairly, will increase voter turnout. This is especially true of low propensity voters, who are registered but do not vote as often . However, states that have used absentee ballots for years have not seen favor towards one party . In fact, Republicans tend to fare better than Democrats in absentee voting. Utah, and most recently the Wisconsin counties of Milwaukee and Waukesha, exemplify this .
Mail-in voting is a viable option for this year’s upcoming elections, but it cannot be the only one. Some voters, such as Native Americans without postal access and people who face homelessness, may be disenfranchised by a mail-in only ballot . Such measures as hiring younger poll workers, establishing supplementary vote centers, and issuing federal aid can mitigate such crises as that of Wisconsin, in which lack of information and last minute changes effectively disenfranchised black voters, older voters, and voters with disabilities .
Lastly, counting ballots poses a particular risk for mail-in votes. Georgia, for example, failed to count 6.4% of absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential election . Officials must dictate a mechanism to protect voters from errors in ballot delivery, submission processing, and other issues at no fault of the voter. Without this mechanism, states and even the U.S. Supreme Court may face voting disputes; what’s more, the American people could face widespread disenfranchisement. In the wake of COVID-19, we must honor our constitutional right to preserve not only the American will to vote, but to be heard.
written by: Taylor Nchako