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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How the COVID-19 Pandemic May Affect How We Vote

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Mariana Perera
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Mariana Perera ’20 is a Fullbright Scholar and Hackworth Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing how we approach our daily life as we implement social distancing guidelines. It is also impacting how we carry out important civic activities like voting. In this article, I will evaluate the ethical case for all-mail voting.

The nation will be voting for president in November and more than a dozen states have yet to carry out their primaries, with each state taking a different approach and questioning if in-person voting is necessary. Prior to the pandemic, five states had implemented all-mail elections including Washington, Colorado, and Hawaii. On the other hand, the Wisconsin primary may have given us a view of a possible future: Even in the face of the fear of coronavirus, the primary was still held. In Milwaukee, the largest city in the state, only five of the usual 180 polling places were open. This led to overcrowded polling places and long wait times. Whereas before polling places expected a little over 100 people, this change meant thousands were forced to attend one of the five open precincts. Since the primary, at least 52 Wisconsin voters have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and some are believed to have contracted the disease in the course of voting. Wisconsin’s decision to carry out its in-person election led to people exposing their health or simply abstaining from voting. The decision to maintain the scheduled primary came after the state court blocked Governor Evers’ attempt to implement an all-mail voting system.

The questions are: In the face of a pandemic, is it more ethical to go towards an all-mail voting system? Even when there isn't a pandemic, is it more ethical to hold all-mail elections?

Arguments for mail-in voting

Those that advocate for a transition towards a mail-in voting only system claim that aside from being the safest procedure during a time of pandemic, it may also allow for higher turnout. By giving people the opportunity to mail-in their ballots ahead of time, people that may have otherwise been unable to attend a polling place will be encouraged to participate. Similarly, people may be able to make more educated decisions on candidates and propositions, as they have time to research issues they may be unfamiliar with, rather than making a decision on the spot and without additional information. Allowing people to feel more comfortable with the voting process and encouraging higher participation can lead to a more representative and educative turnout during election season. Senator Bennet from Colorado believes his state demonstrates the successes of this system as it has the second highest voting turnout nationwide. If democracies rely on the voices of the people, then a higher turnout would equate to a more successful democracy and an ethical good.

In addition to the states that hold all-mail elections, most states, like California, also give voters the option to vote by mail; it is simply not mandatory. This means that switching to the all-mail voting concept would not be completely new to citizens, aside from the universality of it. With enough time to implement and other practices like automatic registration, and clear deadlines, voters could ensure that their ballots are counted even in a time of pandemic.

Arguments against mail-in voting:

One of the main arguments against the all-mail voting system is the potential for stolen ballots or coercion of votes by family members and people with whom you live. People also fear the possibility of a ballot getting lost or stolen. Similarly, the question of access to reliable post office services arises among people in rural areas or Native American reservations, where there may be limited access. Time is also a concern for the November election as states may not be fully prepared to implement this system and ensure voters are ready in time. All-mail voting prevents same-day registration from being an option to people and may lead to stricter registration deadlines, meaning people could be prevented from voting. When in-person voting is available, those who failed to request a ballot or register in time, may still be granted the opportunity to vote vía absentee ballot.

A big concern with switching towards this system is the potential for fake information and fake ballots. Unethical practices can arise in an all-mail voting system, ranging from the creation of fake registration websites, to ads with false information on deadlines, to the sending of fake ballots and other media in the mail. These types of instances result in a distrust by the public and possibly inaccurate turnouts, as people use illegitimate sources without their knowledge. It also questions whether we as a society are educated enough or able to gather the information required to successfully vote. What happens when people are unable to find the real dates or information and hence become disenfranchised?

Rather than becoming a conversation around ethics and democracy, the debate about a universal all-mail voting system has also become one about electoral politics, with a clear partisan split. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnel have stated their stance against this system, citing that it would negatively impact Republicans. On the other hand, Democratic leaders claim that it would help those whose votes are suppressed through other mechanisms under the current systems. As a way to evaluate these competing claims, it is important to note that it is counter intuitive and unethical to affirm the country as democratic while encouraging systems that make it difficult for all people to vote.

Although both sides of the argument hold their own beliefs and aim to address ethical issues surrounding voting, each state will ultimately decide how to approach their elections. In the meantime, the upcoming primaries will be a test on what voting practices we may see in November.

My personal thought towards this topic is that either extreme will bring negatives, and therefore the debate should not be seen as black and white. The country should focus on what types of options benefit the majority of citizens and promote higher turnout. In this case, I believe that there should be a stronger push towards mail-in voting options. This includes implementing this system in every state as an opt-in at the time of registration. Voters should be able to find resources regarding registration and deadlines on their states website, in order to avoid fake sources. At the same time, people that do not feel comfortable voting by mail should not be forced to do so, given that each and everyone’s voting experiences and necessities differ. We should move towards finding solutions that ensure all people are able to vote, whether they are better suited for mail-in ballots or not. This way, we can lower levels of disenfranchisement and focus on electing officials chosen by the majority, rather than by those who have the privilege to vote.

This solution can be reflected in Governor Newsom’s recent executive order to change California’s voting process for the upcoming election. On May 8, he signed an order stating all Californians registered to vote would receive mail-in ballots leading up to the election. However, polling locations would remain open, rather than being replaced.


May 15, 2020