Opinion: Preparing for a pandemic election

In less than two weeks, Kansas will face another coronavirus-related test: an election under pandemic conditions. How will we fare? That depends on state and county preparation, of course, but it also depends on voter preparation.

Say you plan to vote on the day of the election. Do you know where your assigned polling place is? Many Kansas counties have reduced their number of voting locations, moving them to larger spaces where social distancing can be maintained. If you plan to vote in person on Aug. 4, check to be certain of where you need to go.

If you vote in person, will your government-issued ID be accepted? Since the government shutdown included DMV offices across the state, and since the great majority of voters rely upon their driver’s license to identify themselves, this has created a real problem, especially in smaller counties. The post-reopening rush by Kansans who need their driver’s licenses renewed has resulted in backlogs stretching well into autumn, and in some rural locations DMV offices haven’t reopened at all, or only with reduced hours. And this is even assuming one has no problem getting to a DMV in person or has the ability and access to renew online.

Gov. Laura Kelly ordered that certain dated licenses be counted as valid for the time being, but anyone familiar with the long lines and confusion that sometimes attend certain polling places might have good reason to suspect that the governor’s order may not be fully understood by every poll worker. This is particularly a concern in poorer counties, where staffing and proper training are sometimes a struggle even in nonpandemic times. If you’re a voter who has not been able to renew your government identification due to quarantine or closed DMV offices or other reasons, keep the Kansas secretary of state’s website, which prominently posts an excerpt from the governor’s order, handy and be ready to insist upon the validity of your ID.

How about voting by mail? For obvious reasons, this year requests for absentee ballots have skyrocketed, with the secretary of state’s office having already approved five times as many absentee ballot requests as in 2018. So great are the numbers that election officials have expressed concerns about having the people and procedures in place to handle the mail.

In some states, such a large number of mailed-in ballots is routine; Washington state, where I was born and grew up, has had mail-only voting for years. But here in Kansas, with a Republican base that frequently reflected the mostly groundless criticisms of mail voting by President Donald Trump and Senate hopeful Kris Kobach, there is some reason for fear.

First-time mail-in voters are more likely to see their ballots disregarded because the routine is so different from what they are used to. If you’re a first-time ballot-by-mail voter, take the time to follow all the instructions carefully, including signing the envelope in the marked space. By law, Kansas must count all properly signed ballots postmarked up until election day itself, so it’s better to find the time to read carefully, rather than rushing ahead.

The upcoming primary election will be a new experience for many Kansans. In some states, elections during this pandemic have been chaotic messes of confusion and corruption. With luck, and by keeping in mind some key information, it won’t have to be that way here.

— Russell Arben Fox runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.

Editor’s note: This has been corrected to reflect that only the ballot envelope needs to be signed.


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