Mailing It In

“On Wisconsin”: If you’re a Michigan football fan, you heard this fight song five times back in September. “On Wisconsin” also could have served as the motto for the state’s notorious decision to hold their primary on April 7.  

While many other states postponed or canceled their presidential primaries as a result of COVID-19, Wisconsin barreled on. Democrats point to a cantankerous Republican-controlled legislature. As Facebook might say, “it’s complicated.” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers stood in stark contrast to governors of other states as he steadfastly called for the election to be held as planned…until four days before the date of the primary when he abruptly convened the legislature to arrange an all-mail vote.  Wisconsin Republicans summarily swatted his proposal down like it came out of Shea Patterson’s arm.

While blame is contested, what is uncontested is the result was a disaster. In the city of Milwaukee, a mere five of the usual 180 precincts were open to voters, leading to long, socially-distanced lines. Mail-in ballots did not fare much better. According to the New York Times, “At least 9,000 absentee ballots requested by voters were never sent, and others recorded as sent were never received. Even when voters did return their completed ballots in the mail, thousands were postmarked too late to count — or not at all.”  

If states and municipalities administering our 2020 elections do not learn from Wisconsin and other recent primaries, we are headed in November for widespread irregularities and a potential struggle over the legitimacy of the election itself. Don’t believe me? In 2016, President Trump carried the pivotal states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by a little over a mere 75,000 votes, or, to continue our theme, 5,000 people short of filling Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium.

More than the technical legitimacy of counting up the votes, there is a question of moral legitimacy. Is an election morally legitimate when it relies on poll-workers exposing themselves to thousands of people per day coming in to cast their ballot? And a question at the heart of every democracy: Is an election legitimate if people are afraid to vote? In an image that at the time was disturbing if also inspiring, we saw lines in the March 3 Democratic primary in Texas of voters in Houston waiting six hours to cast their votes. Living in the age of COVID-19, such reports are not only a moral outrage, but a clear and present danger to the public health. That was a primary; a general election in November will dwarf its turnout. We simply can’t have that again.

The clear pathway ahead is “mailing it in.” But challenges abound. President Trump appeared to throw cold water on the idea back in March when he characterized a Democratic-introduced package of reforms highlighted by expansion of vote-by-mail, same-day-registration, and early voting as, “levels of voting that if you ever agreed to, you’d never have a Republican elected again in this country.” This isn’t actually true. A recent comprehensive study released by Stanford studied three states that have had mail-in voting for over 20 years and concluded that it systematically benefited neither party.

But as another infamous governor once said, “What is truth?” If elected Republicans believe that mail-in voting helps Democrats—a falsehood many Democrats also have unhelpfully whispered to their own backers—history has shown that they will resist its expansion. To this nakedly honest argument of power politics, everyday Americans of all political persuasions must oppose a moral argument: Our republic is built on the consent of the governed. Laws that discourage legitimate and peaceable means of participation do nothing but deny our basic liberties and foster an atmosphere of cynicism and even nihilism. 

It is important that we resolve this moral debate swiftly and decisively because it’s only Step 1. As the Badger state has shown us, deciding to have a mail-in election is different from accomplishing a mail-in election.

I reached out to Three Rivers City Clerk Melissa Bliss who provided some guidance and did not shy away from naming the logistical challenges we face in November and to a lesser extent in the Michigan state non-presidential primary on August 4. She told me, “…the greatest challenge that clerks will have is the need for more resources and being able to adapt quickly to change. History has shown us what to typically expect and to plan for when it’s a presidential or gubernatorial election. Nothing has prepared us for what a global pandemic would do to our election process and the voter turnout.”   

City and county clerks are facing several new challenges. One is the same-day registration, which is an idea that sounds great in principle, but was part of what led to delays in cities such as East Lansing. Another is something that goes under-appreciated: many states are already worried about literally running out of mailing envelopes and ballots. The outlook might not get much brighter: According to Wendy Weisner of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, “right now, there are only four printing companies that are certified to print ballots across the country.”

With uncertainty concerning both the election and the economic impact on state- and municipal-level governments, there is no guarantee these supply issues will resolve themselves by August or November. Finally, we will still need poll-workers for those who do decide to vote in-person (see FAQ below). As Ms. Bliss says, she has no doubt the state will help provide training and personal protective equipment, but at the same time, “I really don’t know if election inspectors are going to want to work the polls considering their potential exposure to large numbers of voters.”

Voting for elections months away may seem like a small thing to worry about when businesses are closing, millions of people are losing their jobs, and tens of thousands of people are dying, but if we do not decide politically and logistically to mail in this election right now, it could be decided for us by the Supreme Court in December.

Voting is in our American DNA. From patriots in the revolution to suffragettes in the 20th century to men and women of color marching in the Civil Rights Movement, we have said that voting is who we are as Americans. We have voted in times of World War, pandemic—in 1918 both at once—and even in the middle of a Civil War. All across this country in small towns and big cities alike, clerks and election officials are hard at work to take their part in this essential American tradition, but they need us to demand that our elected leaders give them the tools to do the job. We still have time to get this right. But the clock is ticking.

What to Know: Voting FAQ with Three Rivers City Clerk Melissa Bliss

No Reason Absentee Voting: Any registered voter is eligible to obtain an absentee ballot for an upcoming election. Those who wish to receive an absentee ballot must request it in writing from their local clerk. An absentee ballot application form can be obtained from the local clerks, www.michigan.gov/sos, and often times are distributed to residents from different political and campaign parties. 

Absentee ballots provide a convenient method for voters to cast their ballots without having to attend the polls on election day. Voters can request an absentee ballot at any time. They can also request to be put on their clerk’s Permanent Absentee Ballot List. Local clerks use the list to generate an absentee ballot applications for each election and does not require the voter to make a separate request.  

Local clerks begin mailing absentee ballots approximately 45 days prior to an election and up until 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election. After that time, a voter can obtain an absentee ballot in person, in the clerk’s office. 

Election Inspectors: We have an open application process for those that are interested in working as an election inspector. They must be a qualified and registered elector for the State of Michigan but they do not necessarily need to be from the county or jurisdiction where they may be working as an election inspector. Appropriate training is a state requirement and they must be appointed by the local election commission. Those that are interested in being an election inspector can contact their local or county clerk for an application. These are paid positions and that pay can vary by jurisdiction.  Currently, the city pays $12/hr. 

James E. Smith is a pastor serving at Trinity Episcopal and St. John’s Lutheran Churches. For comments, questions, or rebuttals, fire off an e-mail at jesmith7770@gmail.com. Prosit!