hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial September 2020



Will pandemic’s crisis help heal democracy?


Over the past six months, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, sickened millions more, and driven unemployment to Depression-era levels.

But as the Nov. 3 election approaches, there are at least some hopeful signs that the pandemic might be helping to make our democracy healthier – if ineptitude and malign actors don’t manage to wreck it first.

Our cover story this month explores the strong shift this year toward absentee or mail-in voting in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. All three states have taken steps to encourage the use of mail ballots during the pandemic to minimize the health risks of in-person voting at polling places.

Lots of voters are embracing the concept. In Vermont, the number of mail-in ballots processed in the Aug. 11 state primary topped 114,000 – a nearly sevenfold increase from the 17,000 mail ballots handled in the 2016 primary.

In Massachusetts, preliminary figures on the night of the Sept. 1 primary showed mail-in and early ballots acounted for about 60 percent of the total votes cast.

But here’s the hopeful part: The huge increase in mail-in voting doesn’t just represent voters switching from polling places to absentee ballots. It’s also driving a significant overall increase in voter participation.

In Vermont, a total of 157,000 people cast ballots in last month’s primary, both absentee and in person. That was an increase of more than 30 percent from the 120,000 who voted in 2016, the previous record for a state primary.

In Massachusetts, total voter participation in the Sept. 1 primary reached 1.6 million, shattering the previous primary turnout record of 1.5 million set in 1990.

Voting rights advocates and good-government groups have argued for years that if we remove barriers and make it easier to vote, more people will participate in our elections. That would be good for us all, regardless of party, because it would strengthen our democratic institutions and give more people a stake in our government. Now, thanks to the crisis of the pandemic, states are reforming their election systems in ways that are long overdue.

The benefits affect far more than the top-of-the-ballot races. Consider the case of local school elections in New York, which last year attracted the participation of 500,000 voters statewide. This year, because of the pandemic, the state directed school districts to conduct elections entirely by mail and send a ballot directly to every eligible voter. The result: Statewide voter participation tripled, reaching 1.5 million.

Despite the surge in mail-in balloting, the recent primaries in Vermont and Massachusetts, and the local school elections in New York, were for the most part free of glitches. Results were available promptly, and presidential tweets aside, there were no claims of fraud.

Things didn’t go as well in New York’s une 23 state primary, as a tenfold increase in absentee ballots overwhelmed elections workers in the New York City area. Tens of thousands of ballots wound up being disqualified because they lacked postmarks, arrived too late or had other technical problems. And it took six weeks to get final results in three U.S. House races.

As Nov. 3 approaches, New York’s primary stands as a warning of how badly awry things might go. But the other recent elections in our region offer signs of hope.


September 2020 political cartoon Mark Wilson


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