A line to vote in Wisconsin's spring primary election wraps...

A line to vote in Wisconsin's spring primary election wraps around blocks on Tuesday in Milwaukee. Credit: For The Washington Post/Sara Stathas

 Deplorable. Abominable. Unconscionable.

That was the scene Tuesday in Wisconsin, when an ugly partisan fight forced hundreds of thousands of its citizens already grappling with the coronavirus to risk their health in order to vote.

The hostilities foreshadowed the war ahead: Making sure the national election does not fall victim to COVID-19. 

This November the nation will select the officials who must keep us safe, lead us from the abyss of this pandemic, and guide the recovery of our fragile nation. While we hope the worst effects of the virus are gone by then, planning must begin now for its possible return in the fall. The fear gripping us today would be a serious threat to a secure election, as would cynical policies that seek to exploit that fear.

What can go wrong?

In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers rebuffed Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ attempts to postpone the election or reduce the need for in-person voting by extending deadlines for casting absentee ballots. On Election Day, one top Republican state lawmaker said it was “incredibly safe” to vote, speaking from a polling site wearing a mask, gloves and gown. In Milwaukee, only five of 180 sites opened after many poll workers, fearful of contracting COVID-19, stayed home. Long lines formed, most people physically distanced and wearing masks; many were among the 900,000 voters who had not received absentee ballots they requested.

This horror show cannot be repeated. Our nation is so polarized and its people so distrustful of government that this election cannot be seen as illegitimate. That could happen if millions of Americans can’t exercise a fundamental constitutional right because of the fear of getting sick. We must do what’s best for our democracy.

One thing is clear: In-person voting must be minimized. Two-thirds of Americans say they’d be uncomfortable going to a polling site now. To make access easier and safer, mail-in voting should be expanded as much as possible. Nearly three-quarters of adults in the United States support the government requiring mail-in ballots in November. More than 30 states already conduct their elections entirely by mail or permit “no-excuse” absentee voting.

New York does not, though it has begun the process to amend its Constitution to allow it. For its presidential primary, now moved to June, Attorney General Letitia James suggested using existing state law and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s emergency powers to suspend in-person voting and send all voters an absentee ballot. Cuomo issued an executive order Wednesday allowing all New Yorkers to vote by absentee ballot in the primary. A similar procedure, designating COVID-19 a public health emergency and reason to request an absentee ballot, could be used for the general election.

Not all voters will want, or be able, to vote by mail. Some polls must remain open. Those facilities will need special cleaning procedures, and reconfiguration for physical distancing. Industrial scanners must be procured to count mail-in ballots. States must prepare for a crush of returns. In 2018, turnout was 15.5 percentage points higher in states that allow voting by mail than in states that do not. Other alternatives include expansion of curbside or drive-thru voting already used in some states, early voting, and ways to vote at nonpeak hours.

All of this will be expensive; some estimates put conversion costs at $2 billion. Congress must appropriate more than the $400 million it set aside for coronavirus-related election security grants in the last stimulus bill.

Not red, not blue

Unfortunately, this is now a partisan fight. President Donald Trump, sowing seeds of suspicion and illegitimacy, says he doesn’t like mail-in voting, calling it corrupt and prone to fraud without evidence to support his claims. GOP officials in several states are seeking to expand mail-in voting. The truth is that fraud is rare. Oregon, the first state to vote exclusively by mail, has mailed 100 million ballots since 2000 with only 12 cases of fraud. 

There are safeguards that should be implemented — like ballot tracking, signature checking, and prepaid postage and ballot drop boxes so voters don’t have to rely on a third party to deliver their ballots.

While concerns about mail-in fraud are largely bogus, concerns about federalizing elections, the province of states, are not. Congress should not mandate mail-in voting, but rather offer more funding to states making actual changes. 

Trump says expanded voting will help Democrats; the evidence shows no advantage to either party. But his campaign and the Republican National Committee are fighting attempts to change voting rules in response to COVID-19 limiting absentee ballot expansion in Pennsylvania, advocating for a more difficult process to apply for absentee ballots in Georgia, and supporting automatically sending absentee ballot applications to anyone over 65, a core GOP constituency.

This is wrong. Voting is an American right, not a lever for political power. An honest and fair election in which all Americans can participate is essential to our democracy. Planning must start now to make that happen.

— The editorial board