When the nation was founded, the right to vote was limited to white landowners. Since then, our nation has strengthened representative democracy by extending the right to vote to people who do not own land, to non-whites, to women, to younger people. Each time the right to vote was extended to a new demographic group, it was declared that all registered voters are to be accorded equal access to the polls. Officially, access was to be both fair and unbiased. For example, it became customary within a state that all voting places be open for the same days and hours. That would seem to provide equal access, but in practice, it can be used as a tool to suppress the vote; while the polling places may be in operation for exactly the same amount of time, the amount of time needed to vote may differ considerably due to local conditions such as the number of polling places per capita.
The Wisconsin primary of April 7, 2020, provides an illustration. Contrary to the recommendations of the President’s Pandemic Advisory Task Force to delay an election for a State Supreme Court seat, Wisconsin held it as scheduled on April 7, 2020. Efforts to change the date due to Covid were rejected by the gerrymandered Republican legislature, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the United States Supreme Court. Consequently, contrary to the stay-at-home recommendation of the Center for Disease Control, the election proceeded on schedule, and voters waited in lines for up to two and a half hours, wearing surgical masks on their faces and maintaining six-foot "social distances" from each other. The local TV news that evening featured footage of the long lines to vote at Riverside High School on Milwaukee's East Side. As if the time cost we're not enough of a deterrent, Mother Nature delivered an inch of rain in an hour, punctuated by hailstones. While those voters endured long lines in bad weather, just a mile up the street in the northern suburb of Shorewood, voters were voting in 10 minutes, parking in designated parking spaces, and then heading off to their next appointment.
Time has a great opportunity cost: the greater the amount of time required to vote, the more other activities have to be cut back; the more parents need babysitters; the less time available for work or family. When some vote in ten minutes with ease while others stand in bad weather for ten times as long; the opportunity costs are very different. The greater that cost, the greater the disincentive to vote.
The tools available to achieve more equal voting times include more conveniently located polling places, mail-in ballots, ballots received by mail, drop boxes, and the ability to drop a completed ballot with a certified clerk. Since all of these have been used for years in various jurisdictions around the country, those opposed to them should bear a burden of proof that they lead to integrity problems.
The 2020 election provides a controlled experiment. Anticipating long lines at polling centers, exposing voters to Covid while waiting to vote, the state relaxed its rules on absentee voting by mail-in ballot and the use of drop boxes. Eight hundred thousand registered voters applied, providing an online photo of their driver’s license to receive a ballot in the mail. The return envelope required a signature witnessed by another registered voter who also had to provide an address. Any errors nullified the ballot, and fraud was deterred by stiff financial fines and possible jail. The completed ballot was then either mailed or placed in a certified drop-box. This pandemic-induced procedure worked well, and despite strenuous effort to find evidence of voter fraud, none has been found.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) filed a lawsuit arguing that the use of drop boxes was not in accordance with the requirements of ballot custody spelled out quite clearly in Wisconsin Statute. They won: on February 11, 2022, the State Supreme Court agreed and banned the use of drop-boxes for the remainder of 2022.
The proponents of equal access to the ballot box should propose an evidence-based change in the law to permit the use of drop boxes. Here WILL helps: in addition to their successful lawsuit, WILL also issued a report confirming that the use of drop boxes during the pandemic did not contribute to voter fraud! Mail-ballot voting with drop boxes has been the norm in four states for twenty years: Washington, Utah, Oregon, and Colorado. They report no significant problems. For example, Oregon found that out of 100 million ballots handled since the year 2000, there were 12 cases of voter fraud or 0.000012%. With tiny numbers like that, the benefit of mail-in voting vastly outweighs any damage done to democracy by potential fraud. Moreover, a problem would have to be based on “net fraud,” i.e., the difference between the tiny number of fraud cases in in-person voting versus the tiny number of fraud cases from absentee ballot/dropbox voting. The burden of proof should be on those who make this extremely dubious charge. Finding none, let's get those drop boxes back in the business of reducing voter suppression and strengthening democracy.
(A very comprehensive account of the issue, including a discussion of WILL's report finding no voter fraud, can be found here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-summary-of-the-2020-election-biden-wisconsin-trump-lawsuit-voting-rights-fraud-absentee-dropboxes-ballot-curing-big-lie-11642966744?st=pjas9v2kn1k1wjr&reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink)
William L. Holahan is an Emeritus Professor and former Chair of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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