Republicans and Democrats alike want fair elections in which we can all be confident that every vote will be counted. We can ensure the integrity of our democracy and simultaneously simplify voting by adopting a practice already used by many states: universally available drop-box voting.
Drop boxes could be placed throughout the U.S. at each polling place, when it is open for voting during early or extended voting or on Election Day. And, if election authorities made ballots available for pick up as well as deposit, even better, as more people will be encouraged to vote. This is not simply about voting logistics. It is a prescription for expanding electoral participation while diminishing the reliance on the foundering U.S. Postal Service.
In Senate testimony last week, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy assured Congress he is “extremely highly confident” that if you mail your ballot at least seven days before the election, it will arrive on time. The problem is, many states permit voters to request a mail-in ballot right up to Nov. 3. In that case, the Postal Service warns your ballot might not get counted.
In the 2016 presidential election, only about 60% of the eligible voting-age population voted. Although the number of eligible voters has increased as the population has grown, the proportion who cast ballots in presidential elections hasn’t varied by more than a few percentage points over the past 50 years. Combining our proposal with the many other efforts to facilitate voter registration this year would give reason to hope that on this Election Day many more citizens would exercise their most fundamental right.
This election year is unique. Because of the coronavirus crisis, the majority of voters may well prefer to vote by mail rather than risk their health by waiting in lines at crowded polling places. Mail-in and absentee ballots are not ordinarily a factor in national elections, but this year they could prove decisive. Election rules are governed by state law. And in the seven battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin there are laws that mail-in ballots, even if postmarked prior to Nov. 3, will be ignored if received by the election authorities after that date. Drop-box voting eliminates the uncertainty of timely receipt of mail.
Drop-box voting has already been used with no discernable problems in many states. Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan and Washington, to name just a few, have adopted drop-box voting as a convenient alternative to in-person voting. There is much experience across the country demonstrating their safety and security.
If each polling place had ballots available for distribution to voters, it would reduce the six-step process of mail balloting to two steps. Today, voters may need to request an application for mail balloting, complete and submit the application, wait to receive the ballot, then complete the ballot and mail it with fingers crossed that it will arrive in time.
Under our proposal, registered voters who do not wish to go to the polls in person, for fear of contracting COVID-19 or otherwise, could personally obtain a ballot with a brief stop at their neighborhood polling place when it is open for voting. States could also mail ballots early to registered voters as New York did without incident in the recent primary. Voters could then deposit them at a local drop box on or before Election Day.
To assure the security of drop boxes, they could be policed by security guards or local law enforcement. Election officials could collect the ballots at regular and frequent intervals as already happens in those states that have embraced drop-box voting.
If the election office provides the boxes, this all could be quite easy. If a state does not provide drop boxes, voters would have to go for it, put on a mask, go inside and hand their ballot to an election clerk. Presumably the lines for dropping off ballots would be shorter than for in-person voting, if the drop-off period extended over multiple days. The voting transaction in that case would be speedier than filling out long ballots at the polls themselves. The director of elections in Denver says she calls mail-in voting “ballot delivery” because “most voters actually return their ballots in person, as opposed to using the post office to mail it back.”
Our self-governing democracy will not profit from a protracted legal battle over the role of the post office in voting or the integrity of mail-in ballots. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has observed that judges do a bad job in deciding elections. President Donald Trump’s adviser Jared Kushner said that all the president wants is a “fair election.” Drop-box voting would make it happen.
The right to vote in a fair and honest election is a precious asset of the American society, not to be squandered or undermined. Author Anne Applebaum fears we are in a global “twilight of democracy” with a seductive drift toward authoritarianism. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here.
James D. Zirin is a lawyer, public-TV talk-show host and author. His latest book is “Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits.” Matthew J. Mallow is a former general counsel of BlackRock. The views expressed in this article are his alone and are not expressed on behalf of, nor should they be attributed to, BlackRock. They wrote this column for Bloomberg Opinion.
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