Just across the St. Croix River in Wisconsin, we saw last week what it is like to hold an in-person election during a pandemic. It was not a pretty sight. An untold number of Wisconsinites simply stayed home, absentee ballots failed to arrive for many who requested them, polling places were shuttered by a lack of volunteers, the National Guard was called in to help, and voters saw two-hour waits.
By any measure, it was not a fair or democratic process.
It's our responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen here in Minnesota. That's why we have released a plan to ensure that all eligible voters are able to cast their ballots without putting themselves, their loved ones and their communities at risk.
The single best way to keep Minnesotans safe this election is to make it easy to vote from home. We should mail every registered voter an absentee ballot with prepaid postage for return, so Minnesotans can choose to vote from the comfort and safety of home instead of heading to the polls. In mid-March, Washington state, an epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, held its presidential primary. That primary had the highest turnout in the nation because Washington votes by mail. Unlike Wisconsinites, Washington voters had no reason to fear participating in their election, and it worked.
In keeping with Minnesota's same-day registration tradition, our plan includes mailing a voter registration form to every unregistered but eligible voter to allow them to opt in to voting from home. In addition, we propose simple but meaningful improvements to our electoral infrastructure, including placing ballot drop boxes outside government buildings and ensuring all in-person polling places — for the hopefully few who choose to vote in person — are properly sanitized to protect voters and election judges.
We have heard loud and clear from advocates for seniors and people with disabilities concerned about what this election will mean for the most vulnerable in our state. We must act to protect each other in our voting process, so we do not disenfranchise our fellow Minnesotans who choose to protect their health. Many of our townships already hold 100% mail-in elections, covering 130,000 Minnesotans.
It is crucial that we begin this work now. While we sincerely hope that this outbreak is long behind us by the time we vote in August and November, federal health officials have said they anticipate possible COVID-19 re-emergence in the fall. Our legislative session ends in mid-May, so the time is now for us to prepare for the possible impact of this pandemic on our elections.
Also, with absentee voting starting in two and a half months, we must start now to have the time needed to implement a vote-by-mail system. Local elections officials across the state will need to learn the new system and prepare, and at least one mail vendor has a May 4 deadline to print envelopes for the primary. If we adopt a wait-and-see approach, we risk stumbling into an election ill-prepared and ill-equipped to ensure our communities are kept safe and our democracy can function legitimately. That situation is entirely avoidable if we act now.
If we fail to insulate our electoral infrastructure from COVID-19, we risk holding an election that accelerates the spread of the virus, undoing the sacrifice of the Minnesotans who are doing everything in their power right now to contain this threat. As in Wisconsin, countless voters would also be disenfranchised and the results of the election could be seen as tainted.
Minnesota can do so much better. As we saw in Washington, the easier we make it to vote, the more people will vote. The more people vote, the more the result reflects the will of the people. That's democracy at its core.
In troubled times like these, it is more important than ever that the citizens of our republic have the ability to choose who guides us through this crisis. If we enact a strong vote-by-mail system for the current election, we can ensure that nobody in our state is forced to choose between their health and their ballot. It's time for Minnesotans to come together to defend our democracy from COVID-19.
Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.