It’s time for conservatives to get behind much broader use of mail-in absentee ballots and consider a broader switch to voting by mail. During the coronavirus crisis, both practices would help more people vote safely without offering a clear advantage to any faction.
All localities in the United States make available some sort of vote-by-mail with absentee ballots for people who cannot get to the polls on election day. In 33 states and Washington, D.C., any reason is sufficient to obtain an absentee ballot, but the remainder of states require official excuses such as severe illness or travel.
With a serious contagious disease on the loose, all 16 states that do not allow for no-excuse absentee balloting need to change their procedures. While it’s likely many things will return to normal by November, unless a cure for the coronavirus is found it would be foolish to ask high-risk individuals like seniors and people with lung problems to stand in line at a crowded polling place in order to exercise their fundamental democratic right.
In the short term, all states should adopt the system used by military and overseas voters to allow no-excuse absentee voting by letting individuals register and request a ballot with one simple form. Legislation proposed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, and Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, that would expand mail-in voting to almost everyone — and help states foot the bill — also deserves careful consideration.
This initiative should please conservatives because it would improve voting without handing a big advantage to the Democratic Party. Not without reason, conservatives have expressed skepticism of progressive ideas about elections that appear to favor the left. But vote-by-mail does not favor any particular political party.
Studies of all-mail-in elections — the default in five states and sometimes allowed in 17 others — show that they increase overall turnout as well as turnout from more liberal-leaning young and African-American voters. At the same time, vote-by-mail also increases turnout from people in rural areas and older Americans, groups that tend to lean right. In November, when there’s a very real chance that circumstances may keep many seniors away from the polls, the system might well deliver Republicans a net advantage.
But, since studies suggest turnout increases take place across the board when ballots come in by mail, in the long term the practice may change campaign tactics and candidate selection more than which party holds an office. Particularly in primaries, where loyal base voters tend to punish even the slightest ideological deviations, this could make a positive difference for those who heed William F. Buckley’s advice and support the most electable conservative candidate.
In fact, Illinois’ Dan Lipinski, one of the Democratic Party’s last pro-life stalwarts, likely lost his March 17 primary because the coronavirus kept older, more conservative voters away from the polls. Hapless Republican candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin, who threw away winnable Senate seats, probably would not be nominated in a system that held more primaries by mail.
A broader switch to mail-in voting deserves exploration. If staunchly conservative Utah can make the switch to vote-by-mail, as it will do this year, other right-leaning states should consider it. Such systems save money, don’t require anyone to wait in line, don’t require disrupting activities in public buildings and are essentially immune from large-scale fraud. Furthermore, many voter intimidation tactics become impossible when everyone can vote in the privacy of their own homes.
Even if conservatives do not want to go that far, the current emergency demands expanded use of vote-by-mail. Right now, indeed, democracy depends on it.
• Michael Steele is chairman of the U.S. Vote Foundation, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank.