PILLAI: Congress must pass substantial voter-by-mail law


Column: Unboxed

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.
Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.

As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic spreads and states continue to issue stay-at-home orders, the state of the 2020 United States presidential election remains unclear. 

Puerto Rico and some states have delayed their presidential primaries, but these temporary fixes will not solve the nationwide voting issue if the pandemic persists for several months. Now more than ever, it is crucial that vote-by-mail laws are expanded to allow all citizens across the United States to cast absentee ballots with the guarantee that their votes will be counted. 

As of now, five states hold elections exclusively by mail and Washington D.C., as well as 28 other states, do not require excuses for citizens to vote by mail. Not only do universal and no-excuse absentee voting offer a convenient method for voters to submit their ballots at their leisure, but it also benefits certain communities of color who take advantage of this opportunity. 

For example, 45 percent of Hispanics and 52 percent of Asians voted by mail or in person before election day in 2018, and these two groups were more likely to vote early or by mail than voters of other ethnic groups. 

If elections are merely postponed or continue to occur in person, the coronavirus outbreak will pose a threat to poll workers and voters alike. While it is common knowledge that in-person elections are a health risk, many legislators have yet to take action. Their reluctance to tackle this issue may stem from the fact that widespread absentee voting would require more elections personnel, printed paper ballots, scanners and security measures, costing up to $1.4 billion

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) have a solution: Integrate the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 into Congress’ overall coronavirus relief package. The bill would provide funding to institute a larger vote-by-mail system, train poll workers and count all ballots, whether they are submitted before or on election day. 

There will always be naysayers who suggest that absentee voting costs too much, encourages voter fraud and leads to some other outcome on the laundry list of excuses that those who oppose wider vote-by-mail laws have reiterated for years. If there is one positive outcome of this devastating pandemic, maybe it will be a mandate that makes mail-in ballots accessible for all voters in the years to come. 

I am no stranger to the upheaval that occurs when new vote-by-mail legislation is established. When I was an intern at my local county clerk’s office from 2018-19, I witnessed the passage of a law from Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) that allowed voters to either request mail-in ballots for a single election or all future elections until they opted out via writing. 

The law modified precedent because New Jersey voters could previously receive mail-in ballots for all elections in one calendar year. The new legislation also indicated that all citizens who voted by mail in the 2016 general election would automatically receive mail-in ballots for the 2018 general election unless they sent opt-out messages to their respective county clerks. 

As soon as Murphy released this information, my local county clerk’s office got to work. The office issued press releases to the entire county to inform residents about the changes, and I compiled a spreadsheet of local newspapers’ contacts so we could publish letters to the editor on various news outlets. While the County Clerk’s Office posted updates on social media, I edited a print elections guidebook to spread the news to senior voters. 

I cut out newspaper articles that mentioned the County Clerk’s efforts, slid the cutouts into plastic sleeves and organized the sheets into a press clippings binder that was becoming thicker than a phone book. I also accidentally yanked out too much wite-out tape from the tape dispenser and left it tangled on my desk in frustration, but that is beside the point. 

My internship at the County Clerk’s Office showed me how dedicated my local government officials were in ensuring transparent and fair elections. Lawmakers at the federal level may bemoan the unattractive price tag of extensive vote-by-mail measures, but government employees at the state and local level — who do not possess the same fame and national platform — are working hard to make greater voter turnout a reality. 

It is now time for Congress to do its part and allocate funding and resources for a nationwide vote-by-mail initiative within the coronavirus relief package. 

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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