Missouri is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over whether Missourians have a legal right to cast absentee ballots in light of the deadly coronavirus. State officials say that the epidemic is not an adequate excuse, but at least a few advocacy groups disagree. While I won’t weigh in on the merits of the opposing legal arguments, there is a practical case for responsibly loosening absentee voting restrictions.
As the COVID-19 saga continues, many Missourians are worried about in-person voting. After all, there have been more than 10,100 cases and at least 542 coronavirus-related deaths in the Show-Me State. What’s more, cramped polling locations are often flooded with voters and poll workers — meaning social distancing becomes difficult if not impossible. The result could be a fresh outbreak, which officials ought to try to avoid.
While absentee voting is currently legal in Missouri, it is not easily accessible for the entire voting population. Any resident can request an absentee ballot, but the state will only approve the application for voters who meet certain strict criteria, such as being out of town on Election Day, being incapacitated, or even if they are incarcerated in some instances. The coronavirus epidemic and the need to socially distance simply are not an accepted excuse for all Missourians to obtain absentee ballots.
While the state perpetuates a system requiring a government-approved excuse to vote in absentia, 29 states — including the Republican strongholds of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska — do not require an excuse for absentee voting. And five states, including conservative Utah, essentially conduct all elections by mail to great effect.
Despite this, some people inside and outside of Missouri are skeptical of expanded access to absentee voting. The criticisms vary, but usually boil down to two allegations: It will favor the Democratic Party and it will open the door to rampant voter fraud. However, experiences in other states suggest otherwise.
The state of Georgia doesn’t require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot, and because of the ongoing pandemic, its secretary of state decided to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s early calculations, “about 223,000 people pulled Republican ballots compared to 161,000 Democratic ballots.” Other reliably red states have introduced no-excuse absentee voting without massive changes to their political makeup.
Furthermore, Oregon was the first state to adopt the all-vote-by-mail system, and shortly thereafter, progressive Oregon elected a Republican U.S. senator. Utah moved to the same system and has remained a Republican stalwart, which suggests that this method of voting doesn’t necessarily favor Democrats. Even if it did, the decision to increase access to absentee voting should absolutely never be based on petty partisanship. Rather, it should be based on safely and securely allowing people to vote with ease, which can be done with absentee voting.
There are methods to ensure absentee votes are legitimate too, including tracking ballots via bar codes and verifying signatures. Other states have employed their use very successfully. Oregonians, for instance, have cast tens of millions of ballots in the past 20 years since they became a vote-by-mail state, and according to the conservative nonprofit Heritage Foundation, there have only been two verifiable cases of fraudulent use of absentee ballots in that span. All states should strive for zero cases of voter fraud because it is abhorrent, but Oregon’s track record is remarkable and shows how secure absentee voting can be.
While officials may not feel that moving to an all-mail voting or even a no-excuse absentee voting system is right for Missouri, it seems prudent to at least make the the coronavirus pandemic an accepted reason for people to vote without showing up at polling places.