As the country looks forward to the general election, leaders and activists in every state must worry about more than simply getting out the vote. Though our nation has cast ballots in other times of pandemic or war, COVID-19 will still threaten public health in November and pose unprecedented risks. Every level of government must ensure Americans can vote safely, and to do so, our leaders should employ the surest, simplest option: They should implement voting by mail.
Voters should, of course, retain the right to vote in person, particularly because mail ballots may not work for citizens without fixed addresses. But five states already conduct elections by mail, and the rest of the country should join them.
Above all, voting by mail allows nearly everyone to vote while socially distancing, ensuring no one need choose between their health and their civic duty. States that vote by mail have also enjoyed higher voter turnout. In a year when some states have delayed or canceled their primaries, vote-by-mail elections would increase political participation instead of increasing health risks.
Voting by mail could also help cure other American ills: Voter suppression has marred numerous elections in recent years, and voting by mail would prevent typical problems such as long waiting lines and insufficient polling places. And mail ballots need not be the only voting reform — more time for early and in-person voting could also ease the process and help voters adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Just as public health matters immensely, so does the integrity of elections. Voters should be able to track their ballots — as they already can in some states — because public faith in legitimate elections is essential to democracy. Notably, one in five Americans already votes by mail, and nearly every state makes provisions for early or absentee voting by mail ballot, demonstrating that vote-by-mail elections work in practice.
Even if some states regularly vote by mail, most states, including California, currently do not, so they must set up and protect the necessary election infrastructure. The U.S. Postal Service is floundering financially, and the federal government must intervene to ensure the Postal Service can safely and reliably collect ballots in November. The role of the Postal Service in the decennial census proves it is up to the task, but elected leaders will still need to educate the public about mail ballots.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has already ordered that every Californian be mailed a ballot for the general election, and the nation should follow suit. If, as experts suggest, some social distancing will need to continue well past November, voting by mail should not be merely the measure of the moment: It should become the new normal.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2020 opinion editor, Aidan Bassett.