A few not-so-short months ago, it seemed to me the most important issue concerning elections in Pennsylvania was gerrymandering - the computer-driven gerrymandering which creates safe districts for representatives who are servile to their political party.
Now, in the pandemic, the main issue is how to conduct elections.
Pennsylvania, and the federal union, conducted elections in the darkest year of the Civil War (1862) and in the darkest year of a world war (1942) - when the continued existence of the nation was in peril.
The United States has constitutional separation of church and state. Nonetheless, in the "mystic chords of memory," our nation began with the declaration that all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Thus, there is a "sacredness" in our attachment to our union, and this includes a moral obligation to vote. If you are secular in matters of this nature, I believe we can still agree that voting is important.
Because of COVID-19, Pennsylvania rescheduled our primary election from April 28 to June 2. It remains to be seen how many polling places will be open, for the election poses a risk not only to voters but more so for poll workers, many of whom are senior citizens.
The primary election may serve as a valuable "North Africa Invasion" to learn how to better prepare for the "Normandy Invasion" to occur with the portentous general election in November.
In 2019, mail-in ballots became legal in Pennsylvania. The measure passed in the Republican legislature and was signed into law by the Democratic governor. With the pandemic, voters are being encouraged to ask for a mail-in ballot and to use it to cast their vote.
In a pre-pandemic, and perhaps in a post-pandemic, society there are reasons not to like, even to be against, mail-in ballots.
Among them, these: It creates a more complicated vote-casting and vote-counting system. The more complicated a system, the more that can go wrong with it - unintentionally or intentionally.
I believe 95% of persons involved in issuing and counting ballots do so with integrity when that integrity poses no real inconvenience to themselves. Of the remaining 5%, I believe 4.9%, or even 4.99%, would go to the wall to preserve the integrity of the election process. It is the remaining tenth of a percent, or hundredth of a percent, who could poison the system.
Honest elections are an American glory. But they don't always happen. Long ago in New York City, when Tammany Hall ruled, 55,000 votes were cast in an election with only 41,000 eligible voters. More recently (1982) in Chicago (where the phrase "Vote early and vote often" was coined) 100,000 fraudulent ballots were cast in an election. Sixty-three persons were convicted of participating in this crime.
In Pennsylvania in 2013, a candidate for borough councilman persuaded persons residing in and out of the borough to cast absentee ballots in his behalf. He turned out to be the top vote-getter. He also was sentenced to jail for his vote-getting enthusiasm.
And in Fayette County in 1999, a former congressman - that's right, a congressman -- was found, in his own cause, to have forged absentee ballots of senior citizens residing in a nursing home. The grand-jury findings were eventually reduced to a single guilty count, though the evidence seems to have been more preponderant than that.
In the impending presidential election, where mail-in ballots are substantial and the contest close -- as may likely occur in Erie County -- well, hold on to your hat. A lot will be perceived at stake. May good will and honesty prevail.
Mail-in ballots will also increase the length of political campaigns on state and local levels because, rather than having the vote focused on a single day, completed ballots can be returned well in advance of that date. This will place challengers to an incumbent at a distinct disadvantage because their campaigns will have to expend valuable resources to make their arguments to voters over a longer period of time. (Are you beginning to see why mail-in ballots passed the legislature in a bi-partisan manner?)
Mail-in ballots will also diminish the shared communal experience of voting. In churches, what is variously called mass or communion or the Lord's Supper connects us not only to the triune God and to our fellow believers who inhabit the earth with us but also to all believers who have lived through the centuries. In the polling place, we are figuratively connecting with not only those voting in the present election but with all voters before - including those who risked life and limb in war for the right of citizens to vote, those who had not the benefit of a secret ballot, those who walked miles or journeyed in horse-drawn wagons to cast a vote, the black men and women who, through the decades, cast votes in the face of violent hostility, and the women of more than a century ago who insisted on their right to participate as well.
Up until now, precinct-poll workers in Pennsylvania would post, for anyone to see, the results of the day's voting at the precinct (including absentee ballots) outside the voting place at the conclusion of election day -- after the local poll workers, from more than one political affiliation, watched themselves counting the votes. It doesn't look like we will have that anymore. If democracy matters, that is a lot to give up.
Mail-in ballots may be our best alternative for now. Let's make it work. If you do vote early, vote intelligently. Don't let anyone else cast your vote for you. And remember you have much less chance of knowing who will be counting, or not counting, your vote.