As the November general election approaches, political experts and activists have been discussing the best strategies for getting people involved in the civic process, whether it be through contemporary procedures such as mail-in voting or the ranked voting system, during the coronavirus pandemic.
The District conducted its June 2 primary largely by absentee mail-in ballots, a first, because of the ongoing pandemic. While the process reportedly didn’t go well for a number of District residents because they didn’t get their ballots in the mail, many went to voting centers to cast their ballot, waiting in long lines to do so.
District officials, such as Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), expressed frustration with the primary process and have vowed to improve not abandon mail-in voting.
Nevertheless, the District utilizing mail-in voting pleases Carla Hanson, the chair of the Oregon Democratic Party, and David T. McDonald, a leader of the Washington state Democratic Party, residents of two states where the process predominates.
“In Oregon, you mail your ballot in and you don’t have to go to a polling station and risk getting infected by the coronavirus,” Hanson said. “Ballots go out from the election board’s offices three weeks in advance by mail and for the ballot to count in an election, it has to be postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day. The process has worked well for us since 1998, when we became the first state in the nation to conduct our elections solely by mail. The talk about fraud in mail-in voting is a red herring because your ballot is scanned into the system by a real person, not a machine.”
McDonald has heard about some District residents’ complaints of poor postal service in parts of the city and said Washington state has a way to deal with that.
“In Washington, we have drop-off centers where voters can submit their ballots and not have to deal with the U.S. Postal Service,” he said. “The ballot is deemed valid when marked.”
McDonald notes the one drawback to mail-in voting occurs on election night when official results aren’t readily known because many ballots haven’t been counted at that time, but said “we have grown used to that.”
While mail-in voting has emerged as an alternative to the traditional going to the polls method, the ranked voting system has materialized as a nontraditional way in choosing politicians. Ranked voting, primarily the instant runoff system, consists of a voter identifying their first candidate choice by giving that person a top ranking and their second preference the next and the process goes further on.
If a candidate gets 50 percent or better in a ranked voting-instant runoff system, that person wins the election. If not, the candidate with the least amount of support becomes eliminated from contention and the process proceeds along those lines until someone gets 50 percent or better.
Rob Richie, co-founder and CEO of FairVote, a nonprofit which promotes ranked voting, said the method “is a part of electoral reform throughout the country.”
“Ranked voting changes the dynamics between the candidate and the voter,” Richie said. “If your first option loses, you will still have a stake with the winner if you voted for them within your rankings. That forces candidates to reach out to everyone for support.”
In the District, Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) has authored a bill, the Ranked Choice Voting Amendment Act of 2019, that would mandate that method in the city’s elections.
Leigh Chapman, program director of voting rights for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said whether its mail-in voting or ranked voting, “people voting, period, is the key.”
“We want to make sure that elections are free, fair and accessible,” Chapman said. “We at the Leadership Conference believe that the vote by mail option is critical and essential. Voters must have a wide range of options. People of color don’t trust the mail. However, standing in line for a long time to vote increases the chance of someone getting COVID-19. That is voter suppression.
“Even when you have voting centers, that means precincts in low-income and minority neighborhoods tend to be closed,” Chapman said. “Despite that, people must vote in the November election because it gives citizens a voice in their government.”