Finding broader meaning in election results is the political commentator’s raison d’être. This election has already produced a host of conflicting interpretations. Some of which are quite depressing. We won’t go there. After all, the Feast of Christ the King reminds us that there is only one King and Americans don’t elect Him every fourth November.
But the USCCB has long encouraged Catholics to be engaged in civic life. In their “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops remind us that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” Their message to Catholics: we are obligated to assess candidates, parties and issues through the lens of Catholic social teaching, educate other Catholics on these concerns, encourage voter participation and make sure that we ourselves vote. This is all very good and appropriate. However, it can leave the impression that election day represents a finish line of sorts. We voted in November and will re-engage again before the next election. In the meantime, we’re good.
Because this year’s election has capped off an exhausting year, this interpretation is powerful and understandable. Given media reports of unprecedented levels of voter participation amidst a pandemic, we might even feel there is cause to celebrate: democracy is flourishing! But make no mistake: this odd – and still ongoing – election season should raise some questions for Catholics. After all, a republic which produces more votes but fewer people willing to ask questions about the vote itself is not on a healthy path.
So before we tuck away our voting experience for another cycle, let’s mull over some things we know about the election process – and specifically early voting – this time around.
First off, it appears that nearly 100 million people voted early in 2020. The pandemic likely accelerated this trend but early voting has been on the rise for some time. Of those voting early this election, only about one third voted in-person and two-thirds voted by mail. This is worth noting – voter authentication presents particular challenges when it comes to mail-in ballots. However, there is not universal agreement among states as to how to address this concern. In fact, the protocol associated with mail-in ballots varies widely.
Whereas most states required voters to request mail-in ballots, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington did not. They were joined by Washington, D.C. in mailing ballots out to all “eligible” voters. If you were registered to vote in those states, you received a mail-in ballot.
States also differ in their policies regarding sending back completed mail-in ballots. Some required completed ballots to be received by election day, others which used the ballot’s postmark as a criterion, counted completed ballots received after election day.
Pennsylvania counted even those completed ballots received after election day without a postmark.
Many states didn’t require the completed mail-in ballot to go through the mail at all – these states employed a system of “drop boxes” in counties throughout their states.
Some states allowed “volunteers” to collect completed ballots from voters and submit them. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, this system known as “ballot harvesting” is legal in 26 states. In 14 of those states, there is no limit placed on the number of ballots any one volunteer can collect and submit.
According to the Stanford/MIT Healthy Elections Project, states also differ on policies regarding signature verification on completed mail-in ballots. Thirty-one states and Washington D.C. require the signature on the mail-in ballot to be compared to a signature on file but others like Wisconsin do not. Even in states where signature verification is required, some like Pennsylvania argue that ballots should still count when the verification fails.
The differences between how states handle mail-in voting do not end there. But just those mentioned would seem to warrant some questions.
How early is too early? Two weeks? One month? Six weeks? Six months? I haven’t heard any early voting advocates express a limiting principle to this policy. They should. After all, in this election cycle, we heard one campaign insist in late September that having a vote on a Catholic, pro-life Supreme Court nominee wouldn’t be right because election voting had already started. Anyone making this argument would seem to be suggesting that any early voting should be limited to a very tight period right before election day.
Should states send mail-in ballots to all registered voters or only to those who have requested them?
Should states require completed mail-in ballots to be received by election day or should they allow for ballots to be counted if received after election day? If after election day, how many days after? Again – what is the limiting principle?
If states decide that the postmark – rather than the date of receipt – is the determinant for acceptability, what about cases where there is no postmark? Is Pennsylvania right – should ballots received after election day without a postmark still be counted?
What about completed ballots deposited in drop boxes? By nature, they don’t have a postmark.
What about the drop boxes themselves? Is putting the ballot in the mail too onerous a burden for those choosing to vote by mail?
What about ballot harvesting? Do the people of our republic support this system for collecting votes? If so, why? And if so, who should be allowed to submit your ballot for you? Anyone? Should that person also be allowed to collect ballots from others? How many ballots should any one person be allowed to “harvest”? An unlimited number? Again – is there a limiting principle?
Do we think all mail-in ballots should require the voter’s signature? Do we think that signature verification should be required and that the ballot should only count if the signature passes verification? Or do we think – as Pennsylvania does – that signature verification sounds good but that completed ballots shouldn’t be disqualified when verification fails?
And here is another one – do we think it is okay for one voter during the same election cycle to participate in two different state’s elections for U.S. senator? This question is especially relevant this year in Georgia’s runoff election scheduled for January 5. For example, a voter could have lived in Michigan on September 24 (when early voting began there) and participated in that state’s tight senate election very narrowly won by Gary Peters (D). The voter could have then moved to Georgia by December 7 (Georgia’s registration date for the run-off) and voted again in that state’s hotly-contested two Senate races which will determine which party controls the Senate. In this case, early voting in a state like Michigan is two and a half-months before the January run-off election in Georgia, leaving more than enough time to create such a situation. Of course, this scenario could involve a vote and a move from any early voting state – Arizona, Nevada, California, etc. In a country that has historically touted “one person, one vote” – what exactly does that mean in today’s age of early voting?
In the lead up to November’s election, big companies including Endeavor, Gap, Target, Patagonia, Snapchat, Spotify, Uber, Bank of America, Google and Twitter led aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at setting new voter participation records. These companies’ politics are not in debate: a number of them have quite publicly taken positions counter to Catholic social teaching on a wide range of issues involving bathroom laws, abortion and marriage – and have done so cloaked in the language of “corporate social responsibility.” Their get-out-the-vote efforts echo our ruling class’s rallying cry: “the virtue of a society can be measured by how easily people can vote!”
But the early voting process includes making determinations that a truly virtuous society must consider and responsibly address if it is to ensure the integrity of every ballot cast. These big companies may be less interested in this last part. At the end of November, Google-owned YouTube suspended and demonetized One America News Network’s account after the news channel ran numerous stories scrutinizing early voting. Twitter suspended Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano’s personal account after he led a hearing critical of his state’s early voting process.
This all raises some final questions. While achieving a higher voter participation rate is an easily identifiable end target, is it really the best metric to measure the health of a democratic republic? Or is the extent to which that society encourages and engages in a broad, robust civil debate over public policies and their implications – including those pertaining to voting – a more difficult but perhaps better measure?
And could it be that in the interest of ensuring the former, we are being dissuaded from pursuing the latter?
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