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 some good ideas. The best one may be to recruit college students as additional pollworkers. He also says 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, both in the form of absentee ballots, which can be cast by those who are going to be out of town on Election Day or who are 65 years of age or older.
Watson’s e-mail basically suggests that mail-in ballots or early voting is OK if it’s kept to a minimum. The implication is that enlarging the number who could take advantage of either of these options would make fraud easier.
There is some truth to that, perhaps, with mail-in ballots, a preferred form of election cheating in Mississippi and some other states. But then that’s a good argument for allowing in-person, no-excuse early voting at the courthouses or other designated places.
Watson says he will ask the Legislature to allow in-person voting during this year’s elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic but only as a temporary, emergency measure. It begs the question, though, that if it’s tolerable in a state of emergency, why can’t Mississippi figure out a way to make it work under normal circumstances? Four-fifths of the states have done so.
As for mailed ballots, there are also pioneers there, too. 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 just 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.
In defending the security of mail-in ballots, officials in the four states noted that the votes can’t be electronically hacked. Mississippi, where the preponderance of votes are cast on electronic machines with no voter-verified paper trail, cannot say that.
The evidence is overwhelming that Americans like convenience. This year that preference is compounded by fears over COVID-19 and the potential risks that a crowded polling place could create.
Watson said his office does not want people to choose between voting and their health. Allowing no-excuse early voting, both by mail and in person, would prevent exactly that dilemma for those who aren’t presently comfortable going to the polls.
The state should implement both ideas for the November election, then look at making the options permanent after seeing how the trial run works out.