By Del. Richard C. (Rip) Sullivan, Jr.
While Arlington continued to confront the coronavirus epidemic, County residents also were preparing for several elections: the Democrats’ May 30 School Board caucus, the Republicans’ June 23 Senate primary, the July 7 County Board special election, and the November 3 general election. Arlingtonians take their civic duty seriously and vote at above-average rates, yet no one can predict exactly when the virus will stop being an immediate threat to our health, when life will go back to “normal,” or whether there will be a second wave of the virus.
To continue our strong record of voter participation and to stay safe, Arlingtonians should prepare to use absentee voting by mail until the General Assembly passes legislation to create a comprehensive no-excuses, vote-by-mail system. Democracy thrives when more voters participate. Voting-by-mail presents that opportunity and also can save money in the long run.
Voting by mail is not only useful during an outbreak – it strengthens our democracy. First, the system increases turnout and does not favor any one partisan bloc. A new Stanford University study finds that universal vote-by-mail programs do not advantage one party over another, but instead increase overall voter turnout. The more people who vote, the better for our democracy.
Second, access to the ballot box on Election Day is often difficult for individuals who, for example, are caretakers, do not have available transportation or depend on low-wage hourly jobs. Lines at the polls can be devastating to their schedules and livelihoods. Receiving a ballot at home to vote by mail would give these Virginians much-needed flexibility. By expanding the number of registered voters who can practically vote, we would again increase turnout and make sure that their voices are heard in the democratic process.
Third, voting by mail is less expensive for voters and states alike. Voters who work hourly wages do not have to lose any earnings by taking time off to cast a ballot. There is no cost of gas or a Metro card to the voter in order to get to one’s polling place. There is no cost of childcare when a parent or caretaker goes to vote. Voters mail in their ballot when it is convenient, leveling the playing field in terms of the cost of participation for voters of all socio-economic backgrounds.
States ultimately save money because they no longer need to staff as many traditional polling places and invest in expensive voting machines at each location. Oregon, for example, reports savings of 30 percent since its transition from traditional in-person voting to exclusively by-mail voting. The price of mailing pre-stamped ballots to voters may seem high at first, but it is outweighed by savings for states and jurisdictions that have tried it.
The local elections held in towns and cities across the Commonwealth on May 19 marked the first time that Virginians faced a choice between voting in-person, voting absentee by mail, or not voting at all in the midst of a pandemic. The results are clear – when given the opportunity, voters want to cast their ballot by mail. In Fairfax City, for example, 74 percent of voters cast an absentee ballot by mail. Turnout also increased slightly across Virginia due to the increase in the number of absentee ballots cast.
Before Covid-19, we already had made great progress in the General Assembly regarding access to the ballot box. We passed a bill making Election Day a state holiday (and doing away with Lee-Jackson Day), changing Virginia’s voter ID law to allow people without IDs to sign an affidavit, and allowing for no-excuse early voting 45 days prior to an election. We also implemented automatic voter registration at the DMV.
While we are not likely to see a fully implemented vote-by-mail system in Virginia by November, we can get close by ensuring that every voter who wishes to vote does so by requesting an absentee ballot. The Covid-19 outbreak may be a threat to our personal and community health, but we can take steps to ensure that it does not interfere with the health of our democracy.
Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan, Jr. is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Virginia’s 48th District, which encompasses parts of Arlington and McLean. He practices law in Arlington with Bean Kinney & Korman, P.C.