As early as 1886, the Supreme Court recognized that an individual’s ability to vote is “a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights.” As scholars have pointed out, it is paradoxical that such a statement was made at a time when women lacked the ability to vote via the 19th Amendment, and when African Americans were prevented from exercising their franchise through various discriminatory means.
Over the course of the 20th century, procedural safeguards were implemented to ensure that all citizens have access to the ballot box—regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity. Though many of the previous concerns regarding disenfranchisement have been mitigated, there remains a central incongruence that must be addressed this upcoming voting season: the tension that exists between voter fraud and voter suppression.
Much of the dialogue surrounding voting policy tends to be framed around these two considerations. For Republicans, electoral fraud threatens the democratic process by diluting the importance of an individual’s vote. Democrats, on the other hand, argue that outside of voter fraud being negligible, many of the existing electoral laws disproportionately suppress the voice of minority populations by foreclosing them from submitting a vote altogether.
Oddly enough, these two concerns are not necessarily at odds with one another. In fact, fraud and suppression are centered around a common ideal—the integrity of an election. The thought of having a foreign agent infiltrate a democracy through fraudulent means is alarming in that it calls into question the legitimacy of a nation’s electoral system. Similarly, by creating barriers to entry through ID requirements, restricted registration, and tapered voting times, one disturbs the representative nature that the electoral process is intended to embody.
The problem is that these two issues are treated by political figures as a zero-sum game, when in fact they should be addressed in conjunction with one another through a variety of voting mechanisms.
With an unprecedented presidential election around the corner, officials will be tasked with creating electoral formats that address the public health concerns of the coronavirus. This is an ideal opportunity to forge a new path in voting policy that jointly accounts for fraud and suppression.
Because election laws tend to be defined at the state level, states will take on a unique role in shaping the implementation of this process. By treating each state as a laboratory for democracy, leaders across the nation will have the ability to assess the pros and cons of various electoral formats.
Take for example the state of Ohio, which recently cut back in-person voting to expand its mail-in ballot system. This decision was met with a favorable response from voters. In fact, 421 percent more individuals in the state requested absentee ballots compared to the presidential primary in 2016.
Although this statistic is indicative of support for an all-mail-in electoral format, there are serious manageability concerns that must be accounted for. Particularly, electoral officials in Ohio were left scrambling to send out each ballot after the spike in requests took place. As a result, the US Postal Service warned that some voters would receive their ballots at a later date, which in turn would prevent them from complying with the mandated postmark deadline under state law.
If a constituent does not meet the postmark deadline for an election, his or her vote becomes obsolete, leading to the suppression of his or her voice.
The Supreme Court addressed a similar situation in Wisconsin when it reviewed the state’s absentee ballot process amidst the pandemic. In that case, nine justices split along partisan lines, with the majority voiding many of the absentee ballots that would be submitted after the postmark deadline. This decision illustrated that the dichotomy between fraud and suppression extends into judicial decision-making as well.
Republicans, including President Trump, have criticized administrative steps to expand mail-in ballots due to a concern that absentee voting favors the Democratic ticket. Although studies have proven that there is no evidence to substantiate this claim, some states have taken a hardline stance where voters are required to provide an excuse to receive a mail-in ballot. This has generated resentment from constituents who feel that they are being forced to weigh their own health against participating in the electoral process.
With each of these case studies displaying the pros and cons of an absentee ballot system, it seems that the only way to assuage the electoral legitimacy concern on a national scale is by administering a combination of in-person voting and mail-in ballots.
An electoral framework of this nature will provide constituents with a variety of means to ensure that their vote counts, increasing the representative nature of the election. For example, in-person stations accommodate minority voters who are susceptible to address changes. They also serve disabled members of the population who struggle to fill out ballots at home due to physical or mental ailments.
Mail-in ballots on the other hand are critical to rural and elderly individuals who confront travel obstacles as they attempt to reach in-person stations that are far away. Moreover, absentee ballots protect those in high-risk populations who are susceptible to the communal spread of COVID-19. Because these members are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, the election system needs to account for their well-being; an at-home voting option serves that very purpose.
Each of the demographics mentioned above are representative of populations that vote across the political spectrum, demonstrating that a combination of voting mechanisms will benefit both the Republican and the Democratic ticket. Therefore, a joint effort to provide in-person voting and absentee ballots should lend itself to bipartisan support on either side of the aisle.
There is no doubt that a blueprint of this magnitude will be financially costly in that there are technological and public health concerns which need to be addressed this November. In fact, the Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that these electoral adjustments could amount to approximately $2 billion.
However, when one considers the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1886, it remains clear that voting in an election is not a cyclical exercise that occurs from time to time. Instead, it is a process through which all rights are preserved, and for that very reason, policymakers should do everything in their power to preserve the integrity of the 2020 election this season.