Mississippians love to elect their public officials. We elect not just the governor and his cabinet, but a long list of local officials including judges, constables and coroners.
Mississippi also has a long and troubled history of preventing people from voting, especially African Americans. Mississippians like Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, and James Chaney were killed simply for advocating that every Mississippian be able to vote, no matter their skin color.
The latest Millsaps-Chism poll released this past Monday shows that over 70 percent of Mississippians are concerned about disruptions to the fall elections due to COVID-19. A majority, 54 percent, support transitioning to voting by mail by November.
Though it looks like we Americans have flattened the curve with the national shutdown, we unfortunately still do not have a handle on COVID-19. The US has insufficient testing, tracking, and treatments – the very things we must have to prevent future waves of severe illness and death.
Although there are hopeful signs, the US is not doing what other countries like South Korea and Germany have done so successfully to get on top of the pandemic. We did not shut down early enough. We must do exponentially more testing and tracking. And we are not close to getting sufficient Personal Protective Equipment or PPEs to everyone who needs them, including our medical professionals on the front lines.
Which is why we should be planning now for the November 3 elections. There are some straight forward options to make voting in November more accessible and safer for everyone.
We can and should relax the absentee voting requirements to include anyone whose work or health makes voting on November 3 either risky or impossible. We are so grateful to the medical professionals and first responders who have given so much in this pandemic; surely we can show our gratitude by allowing them the same options every voter over age 65 has to vote by absentee mail-in ballot or to vote early in the county courthouse.
And we do not want people who are ill with the virus coming to vote in person. There must be some kind of screening at the polls, like the quick-read thermometers, to identify the sick and protect the rest of us. The best option would be a full-scale transition to voting by mail, but increasing the number of people who can vote by absentee ballot could be an alternative first step.
We must canvass regular poll workers now to identify those in high-risk groups – a majority are likely over age 50 – and hire and train new workers if needed so there will enough people to move voters through the process quickly and safely on election day. We must make sure all poll workers have effective PPEs – which should include plastic barriers, gloves, and N-95 masks – to keep both voters and poll workers from inadvertently spreading the virus. We should have medical grade face masks available for everyone coming to the polls.
Mail-in voting is by far the medically safest option, but some national politicians have come out against it, along with other options for increasing voter participation. One particularly prominent official even said his party won’t win elections if more people vote, an especially un-American position. And a position that does not show much faith in his party’s candidates.
Five states – Utah, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii – now vote entirely by mail and they have seen their voter participation rates increase with the change. Georgia is mailing out ballots to all voters for their May primary in a kind of test-run. Our president and several members of his cabinet regularly vote by mail.
This pandemic and accompanying economic meltdown have changed life as we know it. The US government’s response has not been the well-coordinated and robust one we all would have liked, especially since the early warnings of medical experts were initially down-played. There is a very good chance that we will see a new wave of the pandemic this fall, probably leading up to and during November.
We need to plan for safe elections now.
» LYNN EVANS is from Jackson and a Common Cause Mississippi Board Member. This column appeared previously in the Clarion Ledger.
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