The timing of Illinois’ March 17 primary could hardly have been worse. It took place the day after the state recorded its first death from the new coronavirus and the same day schools were closed statewide by order of Gov. J.B. Pritzker. But he declined to postpone the election, citing uncertainty about arranging a later date.
Some poll workers didn’t show up out of fear of contagion, and voter turnout was low. It was probably the best that could have been done under the unexpected and unfamiliar circumstances, but it was less than ideal.
Wisconsin, with an additional three weeks to figure out a solution, made poor use of the time. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers waited until Friday before proposing to move the election to May and make it vote-by-mail — and got nowhere with the GOP-controlled Legislature. On Monday, citing the public health risk, he issued an executive order postponing the election until June 9. Then the Wisconsin Supreme Court hours later reversed his order. The U.S. Supreme Court then blocked an extension on absentee voting.
The hot mess confirmed what the head of Milwaukee’s board of elections had said earlier: “We are over our heads in chaos right now.” The confusion could have been avoided had elected officials not dithered so long.
Other states have acted with greater speed and forethought. They recognized that this is no time to stick blindly to how things have been done in the past. Several have postponed their primaries, with six switching to June 2 and two waiting until June 23. In Hawaii, Wyoming and Alaska, all votes will be cast by mail.
Every state needs to consider making voting by mail easier and more accessible — and with integrity. The simplest method would be to mail an absentee ballot to every registered voter, rather than require voters to request them. If in-person voting is going to remain an option, states should furnish plenty of places for early voting, which would limit the number of people showing up at any given time.
Making such changes may require special legislative sessions and a spirit of bipartisan cooperation that has been hard to come by lately. But all Americans have an interest in making the 2020 election as credible, efficient and safe as possible. If we’re going to achieve that vital goal, there is no time to waste.