For everybody – young and old, conservative or liberal, rich or poor – this is a time of uncertainty. To a man and woman, everyone wants to know how this pandemic ends. How badly does it kneecap society? How fundamentally will it alter our perspectives? Will it actually change our values, and therefore perhaps the way we put a post-pandemic society together?
There are other profound worries. The poorest families are focused on obtaining sufficient food and medicines every day and every week and every month. Other people have mental illnesses, and the duress of anxiety layered on them by the coronavirus crisis around us is a further debilitating reality. Unemployed people and small businesses wonder how they’ll ever survive an entire year of minimal commerce.
As a backdrop for most everybody’s difficult personal situation, there is the health of our democracy itself. This was already a serious issue before the virus struck. Riven by strong opinions, incited by too much social media and too much mind-siloing, the state of our political discourse is suffering. Much of the citizenry has a hard time talking with each other, and our senators and congressmen are equally alienated from each other. And we have a president whose basic nature – indisputably – is not remotely one of a unifier.
Under such conditions, the presidential election in November will have enormous importance and enormous consequences. With the country so divided – among many people bitterly so – the stakes are extraordinarily high. For whether it is Trump or Biden who wins will result in a radically different path and fate for the nation.
Given the circumstances – the coronavirus, the house-of-cards economy, the polarized electorate, and an unorthodox president – improving the health and cohesion of our democracy requires two things.
First, in November, there must be an election held at all. That may seem a dramatic statement. But we don’t yet know what the status of the pandemic will be then. We also today have no idea what state the economy and society itself will be in. Businesses may not be able to “reopen” to any level that sustains either themselves or the economy. And what will society look like in six months? Will everybody remain intact, patient, accepting of relative helplessness, and supportive and cooperative in either their passive or active roles? Are there any circumstances where order itself would break down?
Second, it is absolutely critical that the states institute the option of absentee ballots for all voters who want them. In November, the virus will still require social distancing and the avoidance of crowds. Many people – especially the elderly – will not want to take the risk of voting in person. And for those who do, there will be unusually long, spaced lines and extended waits outside polling places. Imagine if election day is cold, rainy, and windy.
For many reasons, a big voter turnout in November would be beneficial. In a divided nation, with paranoia on all sides, full voter participation would help to confer legitimacy on the presidential winner, and it could help the losing side to accept the winner. Alternatively, can you imagine the reinforced popular fault lines if we get a winner (either one) by, say, a tight margin in one or two swing states – in combination with an overall voter participation of only 30% or 35%?
There is no good argument against mail-in ballots. Many states – both red and blue – have long experience administering them and there has been no significant fraud associated with them. It may be true – as President Trump asserts – that any larger voter turnout helps Democratic candidates. That may be because absentee ballots will be used in higher proportions in the crowded big cities where voters will want to avoid denser polling places. In addition, the cities traditionally hold a higher percentage of Democratic voters. Still, the nation can hardly argue with a straight face that we should limit mail-in ballots because we don’t like the way people in the cities vote.
The two real difficulties with absentee ballots are in their cost and the administrative work to handle and process them. The federal government would need to assist the states with the roughly $2 billion overall cost. While expensive, this price tag is nothing compared to the trillions that the feds will spend this year aiding citizens and businesses, and it is a tiny sum to pay to ensure that the presidential election occurs on time and in a manner that buttresses our democracy.
The election is only six months away. It’ll take that long to get mail-in ballot systems planned, initiated, and sorted out in every state in the nation. But this is an imperative need and it deserves immediate attention.
This pandemic – national and global – is already almost unthinkable. Yet its full effects are still evolving. We should not assume that additional unanticipated negative circumstances – medical, economic, social, or political – could not unfold. We need to ensure that whatever developments occur, the nation in November will be able to hold a fully participatory and convincing election.
Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” Contact him at email@example.com.