Illustration of arm putting a ballot in a mailbox
Illustration by Sofia Reeves

Absentee voting should be offered in future elections

Absentee voting is becoming more common in the wake of COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, cities all across the United States experienced a surge of requests for absentee ballots and promptly responded by making them more accessible. However, prior to the pandemic, only six states had an official system in place for absentee voting, which begs the question: should states fully embrace absentee voting as the way of the future or should they only utilize  it during times of crisis?

This is a difficult question to answer. On one hand, you have detractors that are referring to absentee voting as a hotbed for election fraud. And on the other, you have proponents that are referring to it as the most convenient thing since sliced bread. So which perspective should you trust?

The answer is neither. The reality of absentee voting is that its implementation goes a long way toward determining how effective and legitimate it is going to be. In other words, it is only as accessible and far-reaching as the states that sponsor it.

First off, it should be noted that absentee voting is not the same as mail-in-voting. The latter is generally used to describe processes in which elections are conducted with the option of mailing your ballot as a universal or statewide measure. Absentee voting refers to processes that do not involve a universal vote-by-mail approach. To be universal, a system would have to send ballots out to every registered voter; this would ensure that the system is available for everyone’s use. 

The key distinction between absentee voting systems is whether or not they require reasoning to vote absentee rather than in-person. For the ones that do require that, voters have to provide an excuse that explains why they cannot vote in-person on Election Day. In 2020, the COVID-19 virus has been one of the most frequent excuses because many people are convinced that in-person voting sites will not be able to contain its spread.      

Unfortunately, several (five in total) state supreme courts have ruled that the fear of catching COVID-19 is not a valid excuse for absentee ballots because it does not constitute a disability. This means that a majority of voters in those states will be forced to vote in-person or not at all, in which case voting would not be accessible. Given that absentee voting systems are quite literally tools for accessibility (people with disabilities as well as the elderly have traditionally used them), the state supreme court decisions threw a massive wrench in their effectiveness. 

I do not believe, however, that we can fault the state supreme courts for their ruling — they deliberated fairly and reached a decision that was justified by their legal standard, which was based around upholding their system’s values rather than accommodating every voter. What we can do is question the need for such deliberations while in a deadly pandemic. There is no need, in my estimate, for excuses in absentee ballots when everyone already has a legitimate excuse to not vote in person: the existence of a lethal virus. That should not be left up to a court of law; it should instead be reflected by our federal government’s willingness to enforce that belief and override state decisions.   

In a normal setting, surprisingly, these ballots would not impact a state’s voter turnout at all. But in the midst of a pandemic they could play a major role, which is why it is essential to make them as accessible as possible.

If you, as an LC student, live in a state that uses an absentee voting system, make sure to determine what kind it is before you vote. If you would also like to see no-excuse balloting be a nationwide courtesy during this pandemic, go to The Action Network’s website and sign the petition that would require all states to pass related laws before Election Day. You could also donate to Vote.org, a network that serves to foster accessible voting procedures leading up to elections.

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