Preparing our Democracy for Crisis: An Interview With Phil Keisling (Part One)
By Evelyn Li
Right now, the biggest crisis facing our democracy is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has rendered large-scale in-person voting extremely dangerous. Fortunately, in response to the crisis, an unprecedented effort to safeguard our elections has emerged. Many reforms have already been adopted, particularly related to the expansion of vote-by-mail.
To dig deeper into vote-by-mail, Equal Citizens Fellow Evelyn Li spoke with Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State and longtime champion of vote-by-mail. Among his many accomplishments — as a journalist and a state legislator — Keisling championed the successful 1998 Oregon ballot measure that made the state the first to automatically mail ballots to every active registered voter (a vote-at-home system). Currently, he is the Chair of the National Vote at Home Institute.
This is the first half of the in-depth interview.
Note: For more background on Keisling and his thoughts on vote-by-mail, check out our March 6th episode of Another Way. In it, our Campaigns Manager Adam Eichen spoke with him in-depth about the weeds of vote-by-mail policy.
On April 7th, elections were held in Wisconsin and pundits are widely calling what transpired a disaster. Can you talk about what went wrong and how we can prevent it from happening again?
Well, let’s first talk about what actually, under awful circumstances, went far better than many people expected. It looks like Wisconsin will end up having about 70% of their votes cast through vote-at-home. This is five to seven times higher than any election in its history.
Wisconsin now joins the “fifty plus” club. Only ten states in America have held a single election — primary or general — in which more than fifty percent of the votes cast were vote-at-home ballots. Their turnout overall was what looks like the second highest in the entire country, despite the pandemic. Turnout was at about 46% of the state’s reported registered voters. Washington — which on March 10th was in the midst of being “ground zero” for COVID-19 in America — had the highest turnout. The state had the most deaths and cases at the time, but the government automatically mailed ballots to every registered voter, rather than forcing voters to apply for absentee ballots.
Those are important statistics, and let’s not lose sight of them. But let’s also talk about what went wrong. Wisconsin would have been far better off had they just simply mailed everybody their ballots. Wisconsin has never done that before, so the state would have had to quickly build the infrastructure and process the ballots as they came in. But doing so would have helped them avoid the messiness of absentee ballot applications coming in up until the election, which forced swamped and beleaguered election officials to immediately process them, in hopes that they would get delivered in time for the voter to then mail it back out. Fortunately, the court permitted ballots to be accepted based on postmark dates instead of the day they were received.
If ballots had been mailed out, it would have been — not a perfect election — but an election with even higher turnout, and it would have been far safer. Half a million people braved the circumstances to vote in-person. They were risking their lives. I applaud them for that. But they never, ever should have been forced to make that choice. I hope going forward no more voters will have to make that difficult choice.
Would you say the baseline reform is a system where ballots are mailed to every voter?
Yes. There are two options. I’ll call them System A and System B. System A is what the National Vote at Home Institute is advocating for eventually in all fifty states. Currently, five states — Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii — automatically mail ballots to 100 percent of active registered voters, two to three weeks before the election. If the government knows that a voter is properly registered, then it is the government’s obligation to automatically send them their ballots.
The other forty-five states have a hybrid system. In-person voting is the default, and there are varying degrees of difficulty for voters to request a mail ballot. Some of these states make it incredibly easy: in Montana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Arizona, and California you can sign up permanently to receive ballots in the mail automatically, as long as you stay at the same address. At the other end of the extreme, is a state like New Hampshire, where a legally valid excuse is required. If you try to apply and you do not have an excuse, you are at risk for a criminal conviction.
The question right now is, how many of these forty-five states are really in a position, assuming the pandemic continues, to execute, under a very accelerated time frame, a “System A” election? That is a tough question. I am certain there are some states that probably should not even try. They have so little experience with mail ballots, and their focus should be to just make it as easy to vote by mail as possible.
Then again, these states may have to send everyone a ballot, anyway, because circumstances could be so bad that there is no alternative — especially as there are huge constitutional questions about postponing elections.
So, I think that the right question to ask is “What would it take, if we had to move to a full vote-at-home system?” Some states are much closer than others. In a state like Arizona, where eighty percent of people are already voting by mail, getting the remainder to switch is a simple matter of just mailing more ballots and having a few more people to process them. But what about a state like Pennsylvania, where only four percent of people voted absentee in 2018 [and where an excuse was previously required, but no longer is]? Can you get ninety-five percent of the people who were voting at a polling place two years ago to easily switch? Can the state develop the machinery to process ballots with a minimum of glitches and problems?
I think you can. We are sometimes called to do extraordinary things for our country. And we are having to do that right now, with this pandemic. But it certainly will not be easy. Listen to the experts. And there is no one more of an expert than Amber McReynolds, who currently leads our National Vote At Home Institute. Our organization is helping every state that asks for our assistance make the vote-by-mail transition (www.voteathome.org).
Can you describe a best case scenario and worst case scenario of the November general election?
The best case scenario is that COVID-19 is gone, and people feel safe to gather and go to concerts, restaurants, sporting events — and yes, the polls. Under this scenario, we would not need to make such a change — though I’d argue we should want to anyway.
But let’s assume that we are still in a very fraught and difficult public health crisis in November. Or we are simply uncertain whether there will still be one. You plan for the worst and hope for the best. States right now should be asking the question: “What would it take to mail every voter their ballot?” And then they should also prepare some limited in person voting opportunities, which is essential and necessary even in a vote-at-home system. After all, some people prefer to drop off their ballot or interact with an election official in a safe, socially-distant, and appropriate way if they need to register to vote, update a registration, or get language assistance.
Preparation should include getting voter lists in good shape, too. A lot of states have poorly maintained voter rolls that contain a lot of inaccurate information. They have voters listed at addresses where we know they do not live. (These individuals are kept on the rolls as so-called “inactive voters”). States should pay attention to getting voter registration lists updated and making arrangements for the inactives (They cannot be automatically sent a ballot given their outdated registrations). States must also prepare for the printing of ballots and envelopes. The upcoming primary elections are a great field test for how to deal with a surge of vote-at-home ballots. We can look at how they go and find lessons learned.
So, to your question, the best case: Is it a perfect election? No. There will be ballots that do not get to people in time. There will be ballots that do not get returned, that do not get postmarked. But, if states follow best vote-at-home practices, we can minimize those problems. We have problems in every election. Poll workers do not show up, electricity goes out, machines malfunction. But we can keep problems to a minimum and perhaps witness record-high turnout in the process. And voters may find they actually like the new system. In states that have gone the vote-at-home route, voters themselves, regardless of political party affiliation, strongly support and like the system. Even those who originally said “I hate the idea.” Once they have the chance to use it, the experience can convert them. They become true believers. “Wow! Why did we not do this before? I don’t have to worry about sick kids, traffic jams, and work shifts.”
Of course, the worst case scenario in November is obviously that we are ill-prepared. We do not do the planning. We wait until the last minute. There are lawsuits back and forth. And people question the credibility of the election.
Evelyn Li is an Equal Citizens Fellow and an incoming student at the University of Chicago.