We Must Ensure That Every American Can Vote Amid the Pandemic

Voters line up to vote at a polling place in Doylestown, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

States are beginning to ease restrictions, allowing many shuttered storefronts to open their doors and more residents to gradually head back to work again after months of isolation. America’s economy is starting to re-open, and people are excited to return to a new “normal.” But with the prospect of a second wave of coronavirus, not everyone can go out again before the curve of new cases has flattened.

Americans who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to preexisting conditions or their age will likely have to continue to quarantine themselves until the outbreak finally subsides, or a vaccine is found to minimize their exposure to the virus. They will have to continue to limit their in-person contact, travel, and be extra cautious when at pharmacies and supermarkets, which experts have called coronavirus hotspots. But now there’s another place to add to the list that has become an incubator for the virus, one that is essential to the foundation of our democracy: the polls.

After voters in Wisconsin headed to the polls last month to vote in the Democratic primary, the number of new coronavirus cases spiked. In Milwaukee County alone, 40 new cases of the virus were linked to the election, with additional infections in other parts of the state. The uptick is due to the highly contagious nature of the virus, allowing it to spread rapidly and faster than the flu from a single asymptomatic carrier. While a person with the flu spreads the disease on average to only about one other person, a person with coronavirus infects at least two others, according to the World Health Organization.

Polling stations, unfortunately, provide the perfect conditions to help the virus spread. A large group of voters often have to stand close to each other in line, which can sometimes stretch for blocks in some places. Given that the virus is transmitted through water droplets, talking and breathing near each other is the perfect vehicle for the virus to transmit from person-to-person. This scenario creates a public health hazard, putting the lives of older voters, who have seen the highest number of deaths for their age group, at high risk of infection and making it dangerous for them to exercise their right to vote. But Georgia, as well as Iowa, Kentucky, New York, and a number of other states, have found a solution that my home state of Texas should adopt: expanding access to absentee voting.

Recently, Texas district judge Tim Sulak ruled that all voters in our state should be allowed to cite fear of contracting coronavirus as a reason to request an absentee ballot. But Attorney General Ken Paxton has challenged this ruling and asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, which would not allow for at-risk voters to cite coronavirus in their absentee ballot request. This challenge by the Attorney General would take us a step backward in helping to protect the health of voters and could facilitate a spike in new cases similar to what happened in Wisconsin following their Democratic primary.

Texas should instead look to states like Georgia, which mailed every registered voter an absentee ballot request, making it easier for people to vote from home if the virus persists until November. By taking these preventative measures, Georgia has taken the right step to ensure that Americans can exercise their right to vote. In light of this, many organizations, notably AARP, have been quick to provide the resources and education needed to help at-risk voters cast their ballots from home.

As we move forward into November, it is critical that states provide the necessary infrastructure so Americans can exercise their right to vote. To ensure that efforts to curb the outbreak aren’t jeopardized and that all Americans, including older voters, can safely cast their ballot, states should follow the path outlined by Georgia and Iowa. The best way to follow their footsteps is by expanding absentee voting to protect at-risk voters from having unneeded exposure to the virus.

Jesse Grady is a former Regional Field Director for the Texas GOP and a former staff member of President Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign.