Opinion: Voting by mail: Let’s start right now

Kansas needs to start voting by mail immediately. Our democracy may hang in the balance.

With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of subsiding, elections may become very complicated this August and November. Turnout may be low. Seven states have already responded to the pandemic by postponing their presidential primaries, while others are making changes such as abolishing in-person caucusing. The Kansas primary election is scheduled for Aug. 4. The general election will be Nov. 3. Both should be held by mail. This will require a change to Kansas law, initiated by the Legislature immediately.

Kansas Democrats decided earlier to make voting by mail an option in their presidential primary this year. On the other hand, Kansas Republicans are not holding a presidential primary this year — a deeply troubling precedent that we must not follow. Not to be confused with the presidential primary, the primary election is held in August. It is the one in which voters choose party nominees for other offices. Those include this year’s hotly contested races for Congress, U.S. Senate and the balance of power in both houses of the Kansas Legislature.

Washington, Oregon and Colorado already hold elections by mail. Kansans can study the lessons learned by trial and error from these early adopters. In general, those three states have experienced few problems and little in the way of voter fraud, due to their strict signature verification requirements. They also have higher turnout. Drop boxes are available for those who prefer to hand-deliver their ballots instead of mailing them. Ballots meeting all other requirements are considered valid if postmarked or placed in an official drop box by Election Day. The nonrushed quality of ballot counting promises more accurate results, and there is always a paper trail if a recount is necessary. The contemporary design of these ballots further ensures that there will be none of the notorious chads — hanging, pregnant and so forth — that created so many headaches in the 2000 Florida recount.

Downsides are few. Because ballots are still arriving and being counted for several days afterward, close races cannot be “called” on election night. This infuriates reporters and pundits, but most Kansans probably do not mind. Political campaigns have to adapt because many voters will have already voted long before last-week “ad blitzes” and Election Day canvassing, but the popularity of early voting has already been forcing them to do this.

If voting can be done by mail, why not online? In a word, the answer is security. The Mueller Report and impeachment process hardly settled disagreements about the Donald Trump presidency, but they have shown us conclusively that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election. It is unlikely that this changed the results, but the simple fact that interference occurred, in and of itself, should be a compelling reason to avoid connecting any voting equipment to the internet. It is fine to post instructions for voters, a link for requesting a ballot, unofficial election results and analysis online. Machinery like optical scan readers can be used to count paper ballots, just not online. However, voting and vote-counting themselves need to be internet-free. No matter how seemingly secure, any connection creates a window for others to alter our elections data.

The Kansas Legislature, Gov. Laura Kelly, Secretary of State Scott Schwab and county elections officials must act immediately to ensure that our democracy stays intact during troubled times.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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