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Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: . The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more at CNN.
(CNN)Despite the global pandemic, we must take steps to ensure a high turnout is possible during the 2020 election. While public attention has naturally turned toward our health care system’s ability to treat the mounting number of Covid-19 patients — along with the spluttering economy — it would be a disastrous mistake to assume everything will run smoothly in November.
Given how much has changed in the last few weeks, it’s impossible to predict what things will look like by Election Day. Even if we emerge from our homes and resume a new normal, there may still be public health directives that continue some forms of social distancing — whether it be staggering employees to work from the office on certain days or asking the elderly to continue sheltering in place.
This could have a profound impact on our presidential election. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the US saw voting in the midterm elections, from 50% in 1914 to 40% four years later. Even if people turn out to vote in November, getting millions of Americans to wait in long lines and touch the same voting equipment could be the last thing we want.
In 2020, the stakes are too high to simply sit back and watch what will happen. Even before the pandemic hit, the election was already being considered by many a pivotal moment in our country’s history and a referendum on President Trump. Now that we are living through a global crisis akin to a massive depression or world war, the stakes are even higher.
Some commentators have raised concerns that President Trump will somehow and postpone the election or prevent it from taking place — highly unlikely — but the bigger issue is turnout, and whether the results will reflect the genuine wishes of the electorate.
This issue will require a multistate solution to enable voting by mail. The health of our democracy is as important as the health of our economy and now is the time for lawmakers to act with the same sense of urgency they showed with the $2 trillion stimulus bill.
In an ideal scenario, we would see advanced technology put in place to allow for secure, online voting. But the risk of opening the door to election interference and widespread chaos is too great. Right now, the best bet would be universal voting by mail. This won’t be easy — many states have made . Mail-in voting has security and administrative risks that would need to be resolved — processing the votes would be a labor-intensive process, and ballots could be intercepted, for example.
But in recent weeks, experts have put forward several proposals to help achieve this goal. Foremost, certain states would need to initiate and accelerate efforts to ensure universal access to mail-in voting through absentee ballots. In some states, like , an emergency declaration would be required to bypass the lengthier process of amending the state constitution.
But allowing for more absentee voting is not enough on its own. States need to give voting officials enough time to process absentee ballots before Election Day to avoid excessive delays. The rights of absentee voters must be protected so that ballots are not too easily disqualified. As with all changes in the election, a successful initiative would require a nationwide public education campaign to make sure voters understand how this option will work and encourage them to take advantage of what their state has to offer.
On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, : “Universal vote by mail would be the end of our republic as we know it.” But the notion that we can’t afford to make big changes in our voting process is foolhardy. American history is filled with examples of substantial voting reform.
In the 1880s and 1890s, states adopted the “Australian ballot” to allow for voting in private rather than in public. African American men were granted suffrage in 1870, while women gained the right to vote in 1920. The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped bring an end to rampant discrimination against African American voters. In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
There have been countless other reforms to allow for absentee voting and early voting, for example, although many Republican-controlled states have moved to impose on voting in recent years.
We need to protect the vote in 2020 and make sure that turnout is as high as possible. If bold steps are taken now, elected officials can work to make sure that millions of Americans will have the opportunity to decide who should lead our country in 2021.
If our election becomes another victim of the pandemic, our government officials won’t have anyone to blame but themselves.