We have no idea how long the current coronavirus outbreak might continue, or how long officials will feel the need to restrict public behavior. Certainly, we all hope life is back to normal by October, when early voting for the November general election begins — but we have no way of knowing. State, county and federal officials, therefore, should begin making contingency plans that will ensure the general election can proceed as scheduled.
Some states have called off party primaries and caucuses that determine which candidates will be on the Election Day ballots. Fortunately, Texas is not one of them, having held its primaries March 3.
Runoffs for some of those races, however, are pending, and they must be resolved in time for ballots to be prepared for the general election. A little creativity should enable those runoffs to be held, with a few adjustments.
The Texas Democratic Party, citing resistance from Republican state officials, filed suit March 20 asking that all voters be allowed to cast ballots by mail if they choose. Under current Texas law, people can only vote by mail or absentee if they are disabled or will be out of town and unable to vote on Election Day. Dropping the conditions, in light of the extraordinary circumstances, seems a reasonable option and shouldn’t require a court decision.
The legislature can then consider legislation that would make unrestricted voting by mail a permanent option when they convene next January. Lawmakers also should request studies into the viability of secure online voting and other ways to improve the election process.
Other states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington state currently offer voting by mail with no reason necessary. In Colorado, voters can either mail their ballots in or return them in person. An option for Texas, at least for the runoffs, might be a similar system that includes drive-thru sites where voters scan their prepared ballots into the ballot boxes.
Because runoff turnout traditionally is relatively low, officials could simply move polling sites to larger venues than they currently use to allow wider spacing of voting booths — a school gymnasium instead of its library, for example. Sporting venues could be used for several races, with ballots given and collected at concession stands and booths spread along the concourse area, spaced far enough apart to ease concerns about close contact. Drive-by voting is another option, where people can pick up a ballot at one window, fill it out and return it at another, without leaving their vehicles.
The general election is seven months away, and we hope life is normal again by then. But officials need to start planning now for the possibility that some restrictions might still be in place. With the presidential race on the ballot, this should be the biggest election in our nation’s history, and planning must begin now to help avoid unforeseen problems.
Americans are resilient and creative, and there is no valid reason to place our national elections at risk. People should be able to design contingencies that will enable us to perform this vital part of citizenship as planned.