This blog post was written and researched by Isabell Liu, 2020 Voter Research & Engagement Intern.

As of June 29, Washington state saw more than 500 new cases of COVID-19, according to the Washington State Department of Health. As state officials and political organizations begin preparing for the August 4 primary, this alarming uptick of infections serves as a bleak reminder of the importance of accessibility in the democratic process. Voting by mail — which allows people to cast their vote within their own home and send their ballot in to be counted via the postal service — is the safest, most equitable, and most efficient way to hold elections during a pandemic.  And as Washingtonians have proven both in the 2016 general election and in the record-high turnout for the 2020 presidential primary, voting by mail works.

Vote-by-mail is the most equitable option for democracy

COVID-19 may have triggered a current nationwide discussion around voter inaccessibility, but many voters have always faced a host of barriers hindering them from casting their ballots.

“People with disabilities are the ticking time bomb of the electorate,” writes legal scholar Rabia Belt in her 2016 article for the Stanford Law Review. 

On Election Day in 2016, roughly two-thirds of the 137 polling stations inspected by the Government Accountability Office featured at least one obstacle to deter those with disabilities from voting, leading to lower voter turnout. Poorly manned or lack of access to voting machines, steep ramps, regressive voter ID laws, and little to no outreach to voters with disabilities by political campaigns are just a few of the ways in which the current voting system excludes eligible voters with disabilities. 

As a result, eligible voters living with disabilities are roughly 21 percent less likely to vote than those without disabilities–meaning we miss around 3 million voters in each election because of the current system’s uneven impact on people with disabilities. 

Given the fact that those with pre-existing conditions medical conditions have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, voting in-person for voters with disabilities has become far more dangerous and inaccessible than ever. 

In a study published by Washington University’s Center of Civic Development, Gena Gunn Mclendon and her colleagues  found that voters in predominantly Black and high poverty neighborhoods also face longer lines and other insufficient accommodations that would further increase local voters’ risk of contracting COVID-19 while voting in person. 

In 2019, McClendon and her fellow researchers conducted an analysis of how race and income affected an individual’s ability to vote based on a survey of 20 polling sites in a variety of predominantly white and Black, and low and high poverty neighborhoods across the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County on Election Day, November 6, 2018.

Their results revealed inadequate (or no) accommodations for voters with disabilities, improper or unclear signage to guide people to voting sites, long lines, poorly trained staff, and other signs of inequity “in poor, mainly [B]lack communities,” said McClendon in her conversation with St. Louis Public Radio

Additionally, Washington is one of many states that do not require employers to give workers time off to vote. Voters, particularly those whose jobs would be in jeopardy should they leave during work hours to vote, should not have to choose between their livelihoods and democracy. For lower-income workers who may rely on benefits like SNAP, not complying with work requirements can mean sanctions on their access to food. 

COVID-19 has undoubtedly made voting in-person even more inaccessible and dangerous for all voters, but for lower-income citizens and/or citizens living with disabilities, these difficulties have long prevented or hindered them from being included in the democratic process. Having the option to vote by mail would ensure that voters who face these inequities, or cannot physically make it to the polls, can still participate in choosing political leaders and policies that affect everyone in the United States. 

Washington vs. Texas : A Case Study

The efficacy of mail-in voting is clear when examining voter turnout between the states that do allow it and those that do not. Take, for example, the difference in voter turnout in Washington state and Texas– –a state that was just denied the ability to expand its vote-by-mail access to include voters under the age of 65 by the US Supreme Court. In the last presidential election, the national turnout rate of citizens eligible to vote was 60.1%, compared to 65.7% in Washington and 51.4% in Texas. 

In the context of a global pandemic, when voters will face more drastic barriers of safety and health that will surely affect polling numbers, the necessity of mail-in voting is obvious. In states like Texas, which do not offer vote-by-mail to all eligible voters, the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 via in-person voting forces voters to choose between health and democracy. Voters shouldn’t have to feel like they must sacrifice their safety to have their voices heard.

Having the option to vote by mail would ensure that voters who face these inequities, or cannot physically make it to the polls, can still participate in choosing political leaders and policies that affect everyone in the United States. 

By transitioning into a system that would allow all eligible voters to cast their ballots by mail, many of those who would otherwise face a variety of financial, physical, or psychological obstacles–COVID-19 induced or not–to get to their local polling stations would still be able to participate in the American democracy. 

Since 2005, more than two-thirds of Washington’s 39 counties have voted entirely by mail with a consistently high percentage of registered voters voting in past presidential elections. Going forward, as more and more states look to Washington for guidance to implement expansive vote-by-mail policies in their own constituencies, this moment of widespread voter inaccessibility should serve as a starting point for legislators and voters to begin dismantling the structural inequities that prevented marginalized populations from voting even before COVID-19 brought these difficulties into the mainstream.