The state of Wisconsin just gave the nation a chilling preview of how bad an election can be during a pandemic.

Voters wearing masks and gloves stood for hours waiting for their chance to cast ballots in their state’s presidential primary and important state and local races. The lines were long because hundreds of polling places had been closed because of a lack of poll workers unwilling to risk their lives by having close contact with large numbers of people. And thousands of voters had to show up at the polls because they never received the absentee ballots they had requested when it became clear that the election was not going to be postponed.

Wisconsin residents had to decide whether to go to the polls last Tuesday in violation of the state’s stay-at-home order, or to protect their health and safety by forgoing their constitutional right to vote.

No voter should have to make that choice, and thanks to an executive order issued by Gov. Mills, Maine voter won’t have to. Mills took a number of steps to ensure maximum participation at minimal risk for the state primary that was scheduled to take place on June 9. These steps and others will be needed to make sure that not only this primary but also the state’s general election in November can also be held safely.

The most important step Mills took was to postpone the primary election from June 9 to July 14. Even though no one knows for certain when municipal offices will be up and running to provide face-to-face service to the public, an additional month to let the coronavirus outbreak peak is a wise and prudent move. In her message issued with the order, Mills said the extra time will be used to encourage as many people as possible to take advantage of the state’s absentee ballot option.

Under state law, registered voters can request a ballot as early as 30 days before an election and up to three days prior to Election Day. (Absentee ballots sent out before the election was postponed are still valid.) Voting by mail has become the norm for an ever-increasing segment of the Maine electorate, people who either can’t or prefer not to show up at a local polling place on Election Day. During the pandemic, every Maine voter who is able to vote absentee should. It not only reduces their chance of being infected with the coronavirus, but also reduces the size of the crowds at the polls, making the election safer and more manageable for the people who have to be there.

Some states conduct their elections exclusively with mail-in ballots, but that won’t work in Maine. We allow people to register to vote and cast a ballot on Election Day, which is something that can be done only in person. But there is more that the state could to to make absentee voting easier,

From tax returns to census forms, more business with the government is conducted online. Maine voters can request an absentee ballot online, but you still need to register to vote in person at a town hall, a Bureau of Motor Vehicles office or by mail. This is an unnecessary impediment to the wider use of absentee ballots. So far 39 states permit online registration, and Maine should join them.

Some states are not waiting for registered voters to request an absentee ballot, but are instead mailing postage-paid applications to every registered voter. This is a way to increase absentee participation that Maine should consider before November. Another idea that Maine could adopt would be accepting ballots that were postmarked on Election Day. They currently need to be received in the voter’s municipal office by the time the polls close, which leaves crowded polling places as the only option for late deciders.

Maine does not have to be another Wisconsin on Election Day. The delayed July 14 election gives the state an important dry run for November.

 

 

 


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