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How do you run a clean, fair election during a pandemic? There are ways.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared by video from Washington to promote a federal bill to expand the use of early voting and voting by mail. However, it has zero Republican sponsors.

photo of a single voting booth
REUTERS/Darren Hauck

The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School/Center for the Study of Policy and Governance put on an excellent virtual seminar Thursday about the upcoming election and the various practical issues of holding such an election during a pandemic. There are a lot of things that can be done to make it easier for Americans to vote without risking catching or spreading the virus. 

I don’t believe Donald Trump’s name was mentioned during the event. But he played (to borrow a notion about a dog that didn’t bark from “Silver Blaze,” an Arthur Conan Doyle story) a role from the silence.

Maybe Trump’s name was mentioned and I didn’t get it in my notes as I watched the seminar live online but, to say the least, it was not mentioned that Trump has opposed many of the ways under consideration in many states for allowing voters to vote without exposing themselves to crowds on Election Day because, as he explicitly stated, he believes that if it is made safer and easier to vote by increasing the use of absentee balloting and other measures, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

He shouldn’t have said that. He shouldn’t have thought it, because it’s evil to value lower voter participation. But it’s also stupid to say it out loud so that jerks like me can bring it up as the reason Trump specifically (and, to some extent, Republicans generally) want to keep voter participation rates down.

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Anyway, the two paragraphs above are just me venting spleen against a president who doesn’t much care about democracy. None of that was discussed yesterday. The discussion was nonpartisan, non-Trumpified, and consisted of smart experts on how to run a clear, fair election talking about the challenges of doing so during a pandemic. They seemed to be reporting from a universe far away where everyone agrees that the goal is to make sure everyone who is entitled to a vote gets to cast one. And, thanks to modern laws and technologies, there are a lot more ways to do so.

It was mentioned that one poll found that 66 percent of Americans said they would be uncomfortable going to a public polling place to vote this Year of COVID. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared by video from Washington to promote a federal bill to expand the use of early voting and voting by mail, both of which would reduce voters’ exposure to crowds. (Fun historical fact: Klobuchar mentioned that absentee voting dates back to the Civil War and was adopted so troops fighting far from home to save the Union wouldn’t lose their ability to participate in their democracy.)

Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who spoke after Klobuchar, said that, unfortunately, there is no hope of bipartisanship on many of these issues, noting that Klobuchar has long sponsored bills to make voting easier and only one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, has ever joined one of them. Klobuchar’s current bill, referred to above, has 36 co-sponsors, zero Republicans. Under those circumstances and considering that Republicans control the Senate, he rated the bill “not likely to pass.”

The usual excuse for opposing measures to make voting easier is that it encourages fraud. The other experts who spoke yesterday at the U of M forum, said the number of fraud cases in U.S. elections is minimal. One of the panelists gave downright poignant examples of the few cases of actual fraud she has seen, mentioning a woman whose husband filled out an absentee ballot, but died before Election Day, and his widow sent it in anyway, as a way to honor him. In another case, a person suffering from dementia mailed in an absentee ballot but forgot he had done so, and went to the polling place and voted again. I would claim that instances like these are not numerous, but I pass them along because I found them both touching.

Five states, by the way, and not all solid-blue states, have gone to all voting by mail: Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and California.

In considering state laws on voting, said Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures, who works on such laws, there are three things everyone would like elections to be: fast, cheap and accurate. But it turns out you can usually achieve only two of the three, and everyone (she said) agrees that accuracy should be No. 1. Fast is nice, but expensive, and state legislatures have to worry about what these things cost, so, she advised: “Get ready for not knowing who won on Election night” in November.