As states rush to adapt their election systems amid the coronavirus pandemic, officials estimate that 80 million Americans plan to vote by mail this fall, twice as many as in 2016. Because of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s decision to remove or cripple key components of America’s mail system just weeks before Election Day and President Trump’s open efforts to discredit mail-in voting, millions are worried their ballots won’t be counted in time, or even counted at all.
Last week, congressional Democrats and several governors from both parties called for Mr. DeJoy to reinstall the high-speed sorting machines and mailboxes that he removed in an inexplicable hurry. He flatly refused. The House passed a $25 billion bill to revive the Postal Service before the election. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider it. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, called the Postal Service system overhaul “nothing more than a voter suppression tactic.” But a speedy judicial resolution is unlikely.
Fortunately, there is a largely overlooked part of the civic infrastructure that is ready and able to help Americans exercise the franchise, even under these troubling circumstances: libraries.
Libraries already serve as polling places on Election Day throughout the country and, crucially, they provide secure, monitored ballot boxes where absentee voters can drop off their ballots before Nov. 3 and know that it will count. Secure boxes for absentee ballots are already available at some libraries in states like California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Utah and Washington. Other states should follow suit.
There are more than 9,000 public libraries across the United States — in cities, suburbs, rural areas and small towns. In surveys, libraries rank among the most trusted institutions in America. They assist with the census and offer voter registration services. They are open to everyone. They are nonpartisan. They are free.
Even in today’s fractured digital age, libraries rank among the most popular and well-visited places in our cultural landscape. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, on average, U.S. adults go to the library nearly once a month, making library visits “the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far.” So why not lean on their relative stability and popularity amid this crisis?
For those curious about how the process of early voting at a library works, the mechanics are remarkably simple. As explained by the U.S. Electoral Assistance Commission, an independent, bipartisan body that certifies the nation’s voting systems, voters may deliver their ballots to a drop box — a secure, locked structure operated by election officials — “from the time they receive them in the mail up to the time polls close on Election Day.”
The commission presciently notes that early use of ballot boxes are especially beneficial when voters experience “lack of trust in the postal process, fear that their ballot could be tampered with, or concern that their signature will be exposed” and if they are worried “about meeting the postmark deadline and ensuring that their ballot is returned in time to be counted.”
In the past few weeks, local leaders in a number of states have moved to expand the supply of ballot boxes at libraries. In Milwaukee, concerns about delays in the postal system and the coronavirus pandemic led officials to install 15 new steel ballot drop-off boxes at branches around the city.
Officials in King County, Wash., just installed a similar network of secure ballot boxes at libraries. County workers carefully selected branch locations so that more than 90 percent of residents live within three miles of a drop box. The goal, the election board wrote in a fact sheet, is “to remove barriers to voting and to support every eligible King County resident to exercise their right to participate in decisions about their community.”
Perhaps in a less polarized time, expanding early voting at libraries would be uncontroversial. Unfortunately, officials in some states and counties have shown little interest in easing hurdles to voting.
In Ohio, an important swing state where residents in Democratic-leaning counties are deeply concerned about long lines and dangerous conditions for in-person voters, library leaders in Cuyahoga County called for the state to install a network of drop-off boxes similar to those in Washington and Wisconsin. Frank LaRose, Ohio’s secretary of state, a Republican whose office oversees election processes, denied the request. Mr. LaRose will allow only one ballot box per county — and only at a board of elections office. The Ohio Democratic Party filed a lawsuit last week to force the state to install more boxes. It’s unclear, however, whether the courts will make a ruling in time to force any potential changes.
Under the status quo, the United States is barreling toward a historic democratic crisis. The legitimacy of our entire electoral system, and with it our federal government, is at stake. Making ballot boxes widely available at libraries and at accessible outdoor places is a safe and inexpensive way for government at all levels to promote our core civic duty. It should be a universal goal among state leaders.
It’s already clear that neither the president nor Congress nor the Postal Service will do what’s necessary to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election. The library, still among the most revered institutions in our fragile democratic experiment, may well be our best hope.