Carl P. Leubsdorf: Coronavirus could prompt the US to finally improve its voting system

Tribune Content Agency

Long before the coronavirus outbreak, the American voting system was in trouble. The evidence: the long lines and delayed counts that beset states and localities struggling to cope with the country’s growing electorate.

But perhaps the current crisis will finally create sufficient concern to do something about it.

So far, nine states and territories have delayed primary elections in hopes the virus will ebb sufficiently to enable voters to go safely to polling places and perform their duty as American citizens. The situation has prompted a series of ad hoc proposals.

In Wisconsin, the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit to extend last week’s registration deadline for the state’s April 7 primary. And in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine cited health concerns as he abruptly suspended voting on the eve of last week’s primary, a questionable act in even a time of troubles.

But if we are to avoid repetitions of this kind of unilateral, undemocratic action, as well as repeated court challenges and a possible electoral disaster in November, far more sweeping steps need to be taken. The goal should be to enable the voting machinery to function in an election that might produce so large a turnout it overwhelms the system, even if current health concerns decline.

The following steps seem like a minimum that all states should take:

—Adopt expanded absentee voting so that any registered voter can use the internet to get an absentee ballot and vote by mail, starting at least one month before the Nov. 8 presidential election.

—Expand or initiate early in-person voting in every state with the goal of encouraging voting, rather than discouraging it.

—Subsidize defenses against cyberattacks and enable every state to assist its cities, towns and other localities to add voting locations. That’s especially needed in cities like Dallas, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Phoenix, where inadequate facilities have produced long lines.

Though passage of federal legislation may be difficult under current circumstances, lawmakers should consider some good proposals in two pending measures, a bill passed last year by the House that also contains expanded voting rights protections and another recently introduced by two Democratic senators.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore, along with 24 co-sponsors, would require all states to provide 20 days of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee mail voting. They would also require advance processing of mail voting to prevent the kinds of delays that resulted in California still counting results from its March 3 primary.

Their measure would also task the nonpartisan federal Election Assistance Commission to create a uniform downloadable and printable absentee ballot for use by 2022.

It is also high time for Congress to act on the House-passed plan to create a universal voter registration system to make registration automatic for citizens when they have dealings with federal or state government agencies, with a proviso they can choose to opt out.

While states should retain their historic responsibility for supervising elections within their boundaries, it is beyond ridiculous that the requirements for voting — especially in national elections — differ from state to state for the same election.

So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted automatic registration systems within their boundaries. As for repeated complaints that such measures could open the way to increased election fraud, the fact is that even those making such claims are unable to point to more than isolated examples of fraudulent voting.

The poster child for false allegations remains President Donald Trump’s repeated, unproven charge that Hillary Clinton received millions of fraudulent votes in 2016 and that thousands of out-of-state voters were bused into New Hampshire to swing that state against him. Leaders of both parties there have repeatedly said it’s just not true.

Besides, it ought to be far easier in the computer age to adopt a standardized system for monitoring elections than to rely on investigating each individual accusation of fraud.

Trump’s unproven contentions are only one example of the dangerous partisan attitudes toward voting.

Democrats have, in the main, pushed measures to make election participation easier, believing larger turnouts would benefit them, though in fact that’s not been proven.

Republicans have blocked national voting remedies while enacting restrictive state measures, like narrowly drawn voter ID laws, shortened voting hours, elimination of polling places, laws making student voting harder and anti-minority redistricting. Some openly conceded their political intent: trying to keep the electorate smaller and whiter at a time the population is becoming bigger and more diverse.

Given the transformation in the country’s demographics, these efforts will ultimately prove not only wrong but politically self-defeating.

Meanwhile, leaders of both political parties need to recognize that protecting and modernizing the electoral system is as important for the long-term future of democracy as massive financial relief is for the short-term future of the economy.



Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at:


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