The Kansas state primary was Aug. 4, and in an ideal world, campaigns are in full Get Out the Vote mode the two weeks before each election, making sure supporters vote rather than trying to increase the number of supporters. As we all know, however, 2020 is far from ideal.
It might seem like GOTV should not take two weeks. One might think that ensuring people can make their voice heard should not require more than one conversation. Unfortunately, voting is often a time-consuming process in which people have to overcome obstacles just to exercise their constitutional right. Local, state and national governments must work to not only eliminate barriers to voting but must actively make it easier for citizens to turn in their ballot.
In the two Kansas campaigns I am managing, internal conversations about how to ease voter suppression were one of our first priorities. Our campaign teams watched states around the nation alter, postpone or cancel Democratic primaries, and we worried about what the COVID-19 pandemic would mean for voting in Kansas.
Normally, a Kansan can vote one of three ways: in-person voting on Election Day, early voting in-person about two weeks before Election Day or by mail. Each of these methods come with problems. On Election Day, voters must vote in their designated polling place, and many — including my mother in 2014 — become confused when they cannot cast a vote at just any place with a “vote here” sign in the yard.
Election Day is also generally associated with long, frustrating lines. Voting early in person can exacerbate confusion since there are generally only one or very few voting locations. Voting by mail — also often called absentee voting — requires filling out an application for a ballot long before the ballots are even sent out.
If all these problems supply voters with reasons not to vote, then the pandemic could only make things worse, unless accessibility increases. Because of the virus, the Kansas Democratic Party sent a mail-in ballot to every eligible voter for the presidential primary. This strategy set a voter participation record and tripled the voter turnout of the 2016 Kansas Democratic caucus. I could only hope that the Leavenworth County Election Office, which oversees the races I manage, would see these numbers and follow suit.
Fears about a dip in voter turnout because of the pandemic ignited some change in how Leavenworth County has reached out to voters. The clerk sent out mail-in ballot applications to each registered voter. While this method is certainly better than voters having to download the application online, many voters were not sure what to do with the envelope they received. Leavenworth citizens found the instructions, already not prominently visible on the application, to be vague. Plus, it was unclear where the applications needed to go. I had to walk my parents through the process and prevent them from recycling the forms.
The next step for our campaign was to make sure everyone who wanted to vote by mail filled out these forms. When my campaigns make phone calls or knock on doors, one of the first questions we ask is about the status of the voter’s advanced ballot application. In doing so, we discovered other areas of confusion among our constituents. Some believed they had already voted by filling out the form. Others claimed they never received a form, meaning there was an issue with their registration or the plain envelope escaped their notice.
The solution to voter confusion and inaccessibility is clear. Local, state and national laws need to change so that everyone is mailed a ballot. The ballots should be free to return and should include specific and detailed instructions on how to do so. While this plan doesn’t eliminate all barriers, it means voting becomes much more simple, and in the days of the coronavirus, safe. Concerns about voter fraud associated with mail-in ballots have little substance given that states using mail-in ballots for over a decade have not seen widespread fraud. Additionally, mail-in ballots in Leavenworth County require a signature on the back of the envelope that matches the signature of the original registration. Protecting voters who send their ballot by mail is possible, and therefore mail-balloting is a method election offices should consider. As long as the United States Postal Service is running and receiving the governmental support it deserves, taking these measures would improve voter turnout and keep the focus of campaigning on the candidates so they don’t have to spend time trying to combat modern-day voter suppression.
The United States constantly prides itself on being one of the oldest surviving democracies. Voting laws are what make sure that statement is entirely true and remains so. Our nation has a long way to go in terms of making voting accessible to every citizen. However, mail-in ballots would be a significant step forward in eliminating voting barriers. The November election is perhaps one of the most crucial in history, and we need to make sure it is easier for voters to participate.
Rebecca Hollister is a senior in the College. Political Handprints appears online every other Sunday.