Steny H. Hoyer: “Our Democracy Cannot Become a Victim of Social Distancing”
The coronavirus outbreak has upended the routines of every American, forcing us to rethink how we live, work, and interact with one another. Ever resilient, our communities are adapting in innovative ways to ‘flatten the curve,’ save lives, and protect the livelihoods of our neighbors impacted by economic disruption. Many have made the difficult choice to put important life events on hold, but we also recognize that some things simply cannot wait. One of those is our democracy, which depends on Americans exercising their right to vote and choosing the leaders who will see us through this challenge.
Many states postponed their primary elections, cognizant that having voters gather at their polling places and touch the same voting machines is not wise at this moment. In Wisconsin, we witnessed a worst-case scenario, where partisanship got in the way of Governor Evers’s efforts to adapt voting procedures to the challenges of this pandemic. In contrast, officials in my state of Maryland worked in a bipartisan manner to move our primary from April 28 to June 2, and Governor Hogan directed the state’s Board of Elections to develop a plan to ensure that all voters can participate safely. Under Maryland’s plan, every voter will be able to cast a mail-in ballot, and for those who cannot or prefer not to do so there will be at least one in-person polling location in each county.
Elections across the country ought to be approached this same way, ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot and participate equally in our democracy. Every state should encourage voters who are able to cast their ballots through the mail to do so. Meanwhile, the right to vote in person for up to fifteen days before an election — with protective measures for voters and poll workers — should be guaranteed for voters who lose their forms, never receive them, or do not feel comfortable participating by mail, just as Maryland is doing.
Contrary to what President Trump has said, dismissing the need for measures like no-excuse absentee voting, protecting access to the ballot is critical to any successful recovery for our country and our economy, and we must take action to enable voters in every constituency to cast votes safely. That’s why I strongly support legislation introduced by Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren of the House Administration Committee to allow every eligible voter to request an absentee ballot for any federal election without excuse — and receive one with prepaid postage and a self-sealing envelope. Her legislation would also prohibit states from imposing additional, unnecessary, and burdensome conditions or requirements on the eligibility of a voter to cast an absentee ballot. It would allow states to verify voters’ signatures against those in a voter database, as it wisely recognizes that signatures change over time and requires that voters be given notice and an opportunity to correct their signatures if a discrepancy is detected or a signature is missing from the voter file. Falsifying one’s information or trying to obtain or cast a ballot without the right to do so would be illegal — just as it always has been.
Enabling every citizen to vote absentee will not require the development of new technology or previously untested practices. Indeed, voting by mail is already successfully in use for all elections in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — and another twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia already permit no-excuse absentee voting. Giving voters more opportunity to participate in elections isn’t just helpful during a pandemic; it’s good for our democracy at any time. Allowing no-excuse mail-in ballots is an idea embraced not only by Democrats but by Republicans as well, because it has been demonstrated to increase turnout and access across the board, in both cities and rural areas, advantaging neither party over the other while saving money for taxpayers.
In 2002, I sponsored the Help America Vote Act to ensure that the voting debacle that sent a presidential election to the Supreme Court would not happen again. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush, and I have been working ever since to identify how the machinery of our democracy — that is, our voting and registration systems and local voting rules and regulations — can be strengthened to ensure maximum participation with the fewest hurdles. This is a civil rights issue as much as it is an issue of ensuring the accuracy of our elections.
In the past two months, Americans have already proven that we can adapt to the fight against this coronavirus outbreak. Schools have embraced virtual learning, physicians have seen patients virtually through tele-medicine appointments, and businesses have moved as many of their employees as possible to telework. There is no reason we cannot quickly and efficiently transition our elections to ensure to adapt to these new conditions as well.
Social distancing doesn’t mean having to distance ourselves from those who lead us in public office. We must not force people to choose between staying safe at home or participating in elections. It is our responsibility to encourage and facilitate all eligible citizens to have a say in the leadership of our country by casting their votes and doing so safely.