As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, presidential primary elections nationwide have been thrown into chaos. While Illinois, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin proceeded with their primaries as scheduled, numerous other states have pushed theirs back. Georgia postponed its primary elections until May 19 and sent absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s nearly seven million registered voters. But now, officials have further delayed the primary to June 9. Instead of further delaying an in-person election, election officials instead should mandate mail-in voting and provide the necessary envelopes and prepaid postage free of charge

Georgia law stipulates that polling sites must remain open throughout the early voting period and on election day, which endangers poll workers, who average over 70 years of age. Election officials like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have increasingly encouraged Georgians to vote by mail as a result of the setbacks caused by COVID-19. Rather than just encourage voters, the Georgia General Assembly or Gov. Brian Kemp should move the state to exclusively vote-by-mail for the primary and pay for return postage.

A federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union states that requiring Georgia voters to pay for postage when mailing their absentee ballots amounts to a poll tax. For many voters, obtaining these stamps requires an extra trip to the post office. The price of each stamp is in and of itself not an enormous obstacle, but the cost, inconvenience and sheer absurdity of forcing almost seven million Georgians to buy books of them amounts to disenfranchisement and, as the ACLU alleges, is an unconstitutional poll tax. 

Georgia already allows all voters to send in absentee ballots for any election, so mandating that they do so for the May 19 elections would be feasible in the midst of a global pandemic. Now that Georgia has over 11,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 400 related deaths as of April 10, election officials have taken the initiative to encourage mail-in voting by sending each registered voter an absentee ballot request form. In-person voting is still permitted. If polling sites open on June 9, officials will facilitate widespread transmission of the virus and prolong the state’s struggle against COVID-19.  

Because the state’s vote-by-mail system is already institutionalized, in-person voting is unnecessary and would recklessly endanger Georgians. The closure of all voting precincts and a statewide pivot to absentee voting would be as simple as obligating voters to follow a preexisting recommendation. By further covering the absentee ballot postage, voting would be made widely accessible.  

This shift to absentee-only voting should have happened in Wisconsin as well, and Georgia’s leaders should learn from that state’s recent electoral debacle and react accordingly. Wisconsin’s April 7 primary election demonstrated in-person voting’s potential to cause pandemonium and confusion amid the pandemic. Milwaukee officials were able to open only five of the city’s 180 polling places due to concerns that poll workers would contract the virus. In a clear transgression of 6-foot social distancing guidelines, voters were forced to wait in long lines for hours and risk exposure to the coronavirus. This all occurred following a last-minute legal fight that turned an election during COVID-19 into a blatant example of dangerous partisanship. Moreover, no late absentee ballots will be counted due to a last-minute U.S. Supreme Court decision that nullifies ballots received after the state’s election day. 

Republicans in Wisconsin and nationwide have claimed that mail-in voting leads to voter fraud. President Donald Trump fueled this fear, recently claiming that “mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters.” This is untrue; five states currently vote entirely by mail and have seen little to no voter fraud. These concerns are likely little more than a smokescreen. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston came closer to revealing Republicans’ true motives to block vote-by-mail when he stated that mail-in ballots will increase voter turnout and “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.” Seeking to benefit politically from a global pandemic is reprehensible, and Georgia’s voters should not sit idly while lawmakers trample on their constitutional right to vote. They should call Kemp and demand that the state move to exclusively absentee voting for the primaries.

Mail-in ballots will also mitigate some of the racial inequalities that COVID-19 has magnified. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released reports demonstrating that African American communities are disproportionately at risk of becoming hospitalized and dying from the novel coronavirus due to a high prevalence of underlying conditions such as Type 2 diabetes. Georgia has a reputation for suppressing the black vote, and the COVID-19 pandemic could corroborate that fact if voters are required to vote in person. Mail-in ballots, if election officials provide free envelopes and postage, will help equalize the opportunity to vote by making it safer for members of vulnerable populations to participate in the electoral process.

Even if Raffensperger decides to keep polling precincts open to voters on June 9, we strongly encourage all Georgia voters to cast their ballots by mail anyway. This is the best way for all of us to limit our exposure to COVID-19 while fulfilling our civic duty. Additionally, voting by mail will protect poll workers, who will have a high risk of exposure, if polling sites are opened for the primary election.

Georgians need to learn from Wisconsin’s nightmare. By instituting a statewide mail-in voting system and financing postage now, Georgia can prevent a similar disaster from unfolding and ensure that every citizen can participate in the democratic process. No one should be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote.

The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board.

The Editorial Board is composed of Sean Anderson, Brammhi Balarajan, Zach Ball, Devin Bog, Jake Busch, Meredith McKelvey, Andrew Kliewer, Boris Niyonzima, Nick Pernas and Ben Thomas.

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The Editorial Board is the official voice of the Emory Wheel and is editorially separate from the Wheel's board of editors.