opinion

OPINION: Monroe County should mail absentee ballots to all residents



opabsentee042220

A pile of stickers reading "I Voted" sits on a table. Tribune News Service

The Indianapolis City-County Council passed an ordinance last week giving $1.1 million to mail absentee applications and ballots for primary elections to all of Marion County’s 645,000 registered voters. 

Monroe County is encouraging voters to vote by mail, but the county's Board of Elections has not decided if it will mail absentee applications and ballots to every registered voter. In-person voting in Monroe County is still scheduled to occur on June 2 with early voting starting May 26.

Protecting public health during this crisis is paramount, but we cannot allow our democracy to fall by the wayside. The Monroe County Council should mail absentee applications and ballots to all registered voters in the county to ensure that voters and our democracy are protected. 

Free and fair elections cannot occur if elderly and immunocompromised voters have to risk their lives to vote in person — or if younger voters have to decide between voting and possibly infecting a relative. 

Contested races on the primary ballot in Monroe County include Democratic races for Indiana’s 9th U.S. Congressional District, Indiana State Senate and Monroe County Council.

In ordinary times, American voters face long lines and lost wages from taking time off work to vote in elections. Without fundamental reforms, these hurdles will only be intensified by the presence of an airborne pathogen such as the coronavirus. 

“We are highly considering mailing absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters,” said Monroe County Election Supervisor Karen Wheeler. 

Mailing absentee applications and ballots to the nearly 100,000 registered voters in Monroe County would guarantee all residents have an equal opportunity to exercise the right to vote without risking infection. 

Before Monroe County allows in-person voting it must learn lessons from the Wisconsin primary. Wisconsin continued with in-person voting for its primary election two weeks ago, and since then, at least seven people have contracted the coronavirus through voting or volunteering at polling places. One person with COVID-19 is likely to infect two others, even without showing symptoms.

Wisconsin's infections could have been prevented if a comprehensive vote-by-mail system was in place. 

At the Monroe County Board of Elections meeting Monday, board members expressed wishes to avoid the chaos and public health risks that occurred in Wisconsin.

The board will meet privately Wednesday to work on lowering the number of poll sites from the originally planned 34, Wheeler said. 

But this would lead to long lines and crowds at polling sites if the county fails to encourage enough people to vote-by-mail.

Even if the polling sites comply with the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including disinfecting voting machines and keeping voters six feet apart, a simple oversight by a poll worker could allow COVID-19 to spread.

The county does not have a concrete number of poll workers.

“I believe that we will have less poll workers because a lot of my poll workers are 65 and older,” Wheeler said. 

The consensus at the meeting of the Monroe County Board of Elections on Monday was that an entirely vote-by-mail system is worth pursuing — but only if it is affordable.

Hal Turner, the Republican chair of the Board of Elections, said at Monday’s meeting that he estimates mailing and tracking absentee ballots could cost the county between $300,000 and $400,000. Turner added that without tracking the ballots it would cost substantially less.

Wheeler said that to mail every registered voter in Monroe County an absentee application, the postage alone would cost up to $50,000.

The Monroe County Council has already allocated $230,000 in its 2020 budget to absentee and early voting, as well as $189,668 for a general emergency fund.

The county can draw from emergency funds to make up for some additional costs. Congress could also help states finance vote-by-mail elections. The CARES Act gave Indiana over $9.5 million to help administer vote-by-mail elections, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Hopefully more aid will be given in the future.

The state and county governments have constitutional and moral obligations to administer free and fair elections despite the circumstances. The health risks to voters and poll workers should outweigh any short-term financial costs. 

The question facing the Board of Elections and the Monroe County Council is no longer of feasibility, but of political courage. 

COVID-19 does not discriminate along party lines, which is why Democrats and Republicans must come together to ensure the right to vote in fair elections is upheld in Monroe County.

Ian Nowlin (he/him) is a sophomore studying law and public policy. He has minors in Spanish and Arabic.

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