Voting rights vs. health concerns

By JACK RYAN ENTERPRISE JOURNAL,

Michael Watson, Mississippi’s new secretary of state, sent out an e-mail this week detailing precautions his office is taking to make sure the coronavirus keeps no one from voting in this year’s elections.

Watson’s plan includes good ideas. The best one may be to recruit college students as additional pollworkers. Voting sites and machines will be kept clean, and the number of people allowed inside a polling place at one time may be limited.

“Your right to vote should not be among the pandemic’s victims. Here at the Secretary of State’s Office, we do not believe voters should have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their own health,” his e-mail said.

True enough, but in explaining his plans, Watson criticized universal voting by mail and no-excuse early voting as ideas that could leave the state “vulnerable to instances of voter fraud such as forgery and ballot harvesting.”

That is a puzzling stand for two reasons. First, other states are using both of those voting formats; and second, Mississippi’s existing system already allows voting by mail and early voting — with restrictions.

Voting by mail, after all, is the same as someone who lives in Mississippi but is at work or school out of state receiving a printed absentee ballot, filling it out and sending it back home. Mississippi also has early voting, but you must have a valid excuse to do it.

Watson’s e-mail basically says that absentee balloting or early voting is OK if kept to a minimum. The implication that enlarging either program or both would make fraud easier means that a small amount of fraud must be going on already. If so, where are the prosecutions?

Voting by mail does lead to a question: How do election managers know that the voter whose name is on the form actually filled it out?

Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — conduct their elections solely by mail-in ballots, while about 20 others use the procedure for some elections.

An April 20 story on the rollcall.com website said officials in four of the states (those in Hawaii did not respond) reported no significant problems with mailed ballots. In its 2018 elections, Colorado referred 62 ballots out of 2.5 million for investigation of fraud.

Maybe the election people weren’t looking too hard. But the states do have fraud protections in place, such as comparing a ballot signature with one on a driver’s license or voter registration form.

Officials in the four states noted that mail-in ballots can’t be electronically hacked. Mississippi, where most counties rely on electronic ballots with no backup printout, cannot say that.

This is not an endorsement of universal mail-in voting. It would take time to set up, and there may be other questions to consider. But it is relevant that the five states using it report that the process works.

As for early voting, why does Mississippi require an excuse? At least 38 states don’t; are that many wrong? The evidence is overwhelming that Americans like things that are easy, and if some people would prefer to go to a courthouse or shopping center before Election Day to cast their ballot, the state should not discourage this.

More directly in reference to this year’s election, Watson’s e-mail said in-person absentee voting will be allowed for anyone who is under a state of emergency declared by either the governor or president. If it’s tolerable in an emergency, the state ought to figure out a way to make it work under normal circumstances.

Watson said his office does not want people to choose between voting and their health. Voting by mail and early voting would prevent exactly that dilemma. The state should look at both ideas in the coming years.

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