Call it absentee voting or mail-in voting, but the practice of sending in a ballot rather than casting it in person is nearly as old as the republic and, until recently, relatively noncontroversial.
Employed more widely during the Civil War to allow soldiers to vote from the battlefield, absentee voting is legal in every state and is both time-tested and dependable. It now has the added virtue of being nearly contact-free, which could literally prove a lifesaver in the upcoming primary and general elections.
Minnesota has been more fortunate than some states that now face nearly uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has taken much from us — too many lives, health, economic vitality. We need not let it take our ability to vote when a safe, secure alternative exists.
That makes the polarization we are seeing over mail-in voting not only maddening but downright frightening. President Donald Trump continues to spread baseless lies about mail-in voting, calling it corrupt even though he, his vice president and others close to him have relied on it for years.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon had planned to mail out ballots to all registered voters, as some states have done, but encountered "huge pushback" in the Legislature, where Republicans opposed any loosening of absentee ballot requirements.
Their opposition is particularly confounding given that, according to Simon, 130,000 Minnesotans already live in communities that rely almost exclusively on mail-in ballots. In counties such as Kittson and Lake of the Woods, Simon said, 80 to 90% already vote by mail, and without incident. Requiring voters to request an absentee ballot "just forces voters to take one more step," he said, and costs the state more money, both to process the requests and send out ballots.
Nevertheless, filling out a form will get you ballots for the August primary and the November general. If you are already registered, the usual witness signature requirement is waived by consent decrees Simon agreed to when older voters challenged the requirement in court. Republicans are attempting to intervene by challenging those decrees.
Even without witness signatures, absentee ballots are counted only if information matches personal identifying information supplied by voters, Simon said, making them secure from mailbox theft. Voters sign them under penalty of perjury, and the number of actual voter fraud cases remains extremely small.
The upcoming elections pose challenges not encountered in modern times. The prospect of voters lining up for long periods — maybe wearing masks, maybe social distancing, maybe not — to use the same, small voting booths and handle the same marking pens is daunting indeed. Then there's the danger to the 30,000 volunteers needed to spend hours inside schools, churches, community centers and other indoor spaces to help process ballots.
There is something satisfying about trooping to a precinct place with your neighbors, popping your ballot into the machine and getting that little iconic "I Voted" sticker as a testament to your good citizen status. But many Minnesotans may want or need to make a different calculation this time, opting to keep themselves and others safe.
That's not a partisan issue. It's just good sense.