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What about my freedom? (to vote safely during a pandemic)

| Monday, September 28, 2020

I remember sitting in AP Government class and learning that states have the right to determine the time, place and manner of elections. This made sense to me then: Local and regional governments are more familiar with constituent life and, theoretically, they can better ensure that as many people who are eligible to vote can vote. But come on, Indiana. Indiana is one of just five states in the country that refused to expand mail-in voting capacities in response to COVID-related concerns. Indiana usually has “​strict-excuse requirements​” for absentee voting and now they are one of just five states — Louisiana, Texas, Indiana, Mississippi and Tennessee — that still require an excuse other than COVID-19 concerns to vote by mail. This is unjust.

Not everyone thinks so. Many conservatives are citing voter fraud as a concern with voting by mail. But numerous reports, including​ this one​ from the Brennan center — a nonpartisan law and policy organization — indicate that actual rates of voter fraud are minute. Specifically, they cite a report that found rates of voter fraud to be between 0.0003% and 0.0025%. The report, which closely tracked the presence of voter fraud in several elections, concluded it is more likely that an American citizen “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” They also note a review of the 2016 election, which found just four instances of voter fraud. Despite its rarity, the possibility of voter fraud is obviously a very serious concern in a democracy. As such, no one should attempt to vote twice (something ​President Trump appeared to ​encourage ​voters to do on Sept. 2).

This is the first presidential election in which I am eligible to vote. I have already given up a semester of my college experience to protect myself and my family from COVID-19. I do not regret that decision — with Notre Dame itself reporting case numbers in the hundreds at the beginning of this semester, I am glad I stuck to my principles as I continue to live with my family. But now I have another issue to evaluate. Millions of American voters in Indiana, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi likely share these concerns for the health of their communities. Concern or no concern, if adequate safety precautions are not taken at the polls, Election Day has the potential to be a superspreader event that has public health repercussions into December.

Concerns about coronavirus are very real for many Indiana residents. And while I’m personally not facing a life-or-death risk at the polls, the choice to go into a public space at this time is a critical one for many Hoosiers with serious pre-existing health conditions. More than ​1,000 Hoosiers tested positive for COVID-19 ​between Thursday and Friday, consistent with the state’s average. During those days, 11 people in Indiana died due to COVID-19. Since March, 3,351 Indiana residents have lost their battles with coronavirus. ​Almost 40% of American​s have pre-existing conditions that put them at high-risk for serious complications with the novel coronavirus. And while Indiana does permit seniors over 65 to vote by mail without any other excuse, this too has been the subject of controversy: Indiana Vote by Mail filed a ​federal appeal ​to a district court decision against no-excuse voting on August 25, claiming that “Indiana’s absentee voting law that permits those over 65 to vote by mail is discriminatory on the basis of age … those younger are not afforded the same right.”

The pandemic has increased the risks of in-person voting beyond precedent in any normal cold and flu season. Voter suppression is a term I won’t throw around flippantly here, but when the stakes are so high, current policies that force us to gather at the polls in person make us choose between our right to health and our right to vote. A democracy is supposed to respect every vote equally. And when the observance of safety protocols for the COVID-19 pandemic and concern about the virus are beliefs largely ​divided along partisan lines, ​one has to wonder if these five red states are neglecting their responsibilities to both political and public health in their refusal to allow those concerned about COVID-19 to vote by mail.

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

Renee Yaseen is a junior who majors in International Economics and Arabic. She’s currently on a gap semester doing lots of creative stuff and lots of un-creative stuff. She can be reached via the chat on a shared Google Doc at 3 a.m., on Twitter @ReneeYaseen or by email at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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