by Charlie Wolfson, PublicSource
COVID-19 has upended almost every part of American life. Our system of elections is no exception. For some Wisconsin voters earlier this month, the choice seemed impossible: Show up to polling places while the state is under the stay-at-home order due to the pandemic, or not vote at all. Mail-in voting in Wisconsin is limited to absentee ballots only for certain excuses, and the pandemic was not on that list.
Pennsylvania officials pushed the state’s primary back from April 28 to June 2, and when PublicSource asked Gov. Tom Wolf on April 1 if he urges all Pennsylvanians to apply for a mail-in ballot for the upcoming election to mitigate in-person voting crowds, he said, “Yes, I think that would be a really good idea.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said during a press conference April 8 that the way the Wisconsin primary unfolded raised “concerns,” and he hopes to be able to announce a plan next week on how the county will conduct its election.
Pennsylvania changed its law in 2019 to allow voting-by-mail by request with no need to list an excuse. Other states spent years gradually building a robust mail-in voting system, and Pennsylvania is now faced with preparing for a huge increase in mail voting in just a couple months. Election experts say vote-by-mail can get our democracy safely through the pandemic, but they point out a number of potential vulnerabilities.
PublicSource spoke with seven experts — including fair election advocates, security experts and scholars — about the benefits and hazards of conducting democracy by mail. Among their warnings were the potential for disenfranchisement, voter coercion and faulty mailing lists. They also explained the benefits of having a secure, accessible and expansive vote-by-mail operation and one expert notably suggested that rather than asking voters to request mail-in ballots, Pennsylvania should send ballots to all registered voters.
A resident walks near a polling place in East Liberty on May 21, 2019. Voting is poised to change dramatically in the wake of the coronavirus. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
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