I want to add my voice to the chorus of Americans supporting the blue uniforms – the brave men and women who are on the front lines of this crisis, keeping society running despite widespread criticism of their role.
I’m talking, of course, about the warriors of the United States Postal Service.
The post office, of all places, is under attack, mostly in relation to the fall elections. President Donald Trump warns us that the use of absentee ballots, or voting by mail, could lead to a rigged election with massive voter fraud. He even suggested moving the election – something, thankfully, he lacks the constitutional power to do.
It is true that absentee voting is on the rise, with already more summer requests for ballots in some Virginia localities than the entire 2016 election.
Before we go any further, please note that the terms absentee voting, voting by mail and early voting are generally the same thing. In Virginia, as in all states, you do not have to go to a polling place on Election Day to vote. That’s the absentee part – you are technically absent from the polls. Instead, you can request an early ballot and submit it before the election, either in person or by mail.
While many states, including Virginia, recently have made it easier to vote absentee, these types of ballots have been around since the colonial era. Why are they a problem now?
Trump, our agent-of-chaos-in-chief, is one big reason, as he has questioned the legitimacy of elections from the beginning of his first campaign. There are lots of reasons why he might do this. If you are worried about losing, one way to remain a winner is to suggest the game was rigged.
But debates over mail-in voting also reflect a deeper, ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats. For Republicans, voting is an important privilege that must be protected at all costs – even if some citizens are unable to vote. Democrats are more concerned about open opportunity and protecting access to voting even if a few bad votes are counted. Voting by mail, to some, favors opportunity over security.
Still, with advance registration, voter ID requirements, workday voting and a host of other obstacles, we make it extra hard for people to vote in this country. And underneath the principles is a darker fight, as our most vulnerable lower-income and minority voters tend to favor one party over the other. Republicans know this and have supported voting restrictions for decades for political reasons.
Another obstacle to voter participation is our patchwork electoral system, with laws and practices that vary from state to state and locality to locality. Even well-meaning people can get it wrong, as we saw recently when a nonprofit group sent out thousands of ballot requests to Virginia voters with wrong return addresses. This honest mistake will not lead to Trump’s “massive fraud.” Election officials said these envelopes would still get where they needed to go; plus they were not the actual ballots, just requests for them. Still, from a public relations perspective, this episode was bad for the absentee ballot brand.
Such episodes feed Americans’ greater distrust of government bureaucracy – a distrust fed by decades of Republican rhetoric that demonizes government workers as the enemy of hardworking Americans. Despite this horror story, studies show that most public sector workers are competent and dedicated to their jobs. This is especially true of postal workers. The idea that your mail carrier is a secret Democratic stooge out to steal your ballot is just not how this works.
There are many better reasons to worry about elections: machine hacking. State election officials who allocate ballots and machines to favor their party. Disinformation campaigns in minority neighborhoods: “Don’t forget to vote Wednesday!” But the kind of fraud that Trump and his supporters warn about, including postal ballot theft, just hasn’t happened and there’s no reason to think it will.
Which brings us to the other heroes in this story: local officials.
All of our elections, even national ones, go through local government – each county and city in Virginia has a registrar’s office, where officials literally swear an oath to protect our democracy. These folks are the ones ensuring that we have any fair and free elections at all. Most of them take their jobs very, very seriously.
And they are working, along with state officials, to ensure that voting can proceed safely and securely this year. The state legislature already passed a law last year permitting no-excuse absentee ballots and is considering ways to add drop-off boxes. Many local registrars, including the City of Richmond’s, are already setting up satellite locations where residents can come fill out or drop off a ballot.
The key take-away here: Do not give in to fear, and certainly do not let the fearmongering stop you from voting. Even if nothing changes between now and November, you have at least three options:
You can vote in person. Still, this may involve standing in line, especially indoors. This is not great idea in coronavirus times, and who can predict our pandemic status in November? You should carefully consider the health risks.
A second option is to vote absentee, including dropping off a ballot in person. You can travel to a registrar’s office and complete the ballot in person, or you can request it early through an online or mailed-in ballot request and drop off it yourself.
Finally, if you cannot find the time to travel, or cannot make up your mind early enough, or for any reason, really – mail in your ballot. It will get there. The blue line will hold.
For information on your absentee ballot options, visit the Virginia Department of Elections website at elections.virginia.gov/casting-a-ballot/absentee-voting.
Rich Meagher is the author of “Local Politics Matters” (forthcoming from Lantern, 2020). He teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College.
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