Our democracy can stand up to a lot — but COVID-19 will test us.
The threat of this rapidly spreading virus has fundamentally changed our lives as Americans and Montanans seemingly overnight. We’ve turned to each other, and made changes big and small to help protect our health and the health of our friends, neighbors and communities.
COVID-19 has changed how we greet one another, what’s on television, how we gather together, how thoroughly we wash our hands, where we work, how often we go out and much more.
Now, it must change the way we vote.
I’ve dedicated my life to ensuring our democracy is accessible to all Montanans — registering voters, fixing our broken vote-by-mail system, and standing up to out-of-touch politicians intent on putting up barriers between all of us and our right to vote. But this challenge is bigger and different than any we’ve seen before. It’s about protecting the health and lives of ourselves, our friends and neighbors.
While other states have canceled elections or simply asked voters to fend for themselves, we as Montanans must do better. There is no silver bullet to address the strain COVID-19 is placing on Montana’s democracy. We must take quick action to make our democracy secure, accessible and up to the challenges of this pandemic.
That’s why I have released a comprehensive nine-point plan to ensure our democracy is ready for the elections ahead.
We must give counties the option to conduct the upcoming elections by mail. Montanans' enthusiasm to vote in the June primary could create a health risk for some of our most vulnerable citizens. This is especially true of the dedicated senior citizens who are the vast majority of election judges in our state. Asking voters to risk their health as Montanans crowd into gymnasiums, churches and community centers to exercise our hard-won right to vote is simply not responsible.
Voting by mail is a secure, accessible and proven method of voting that over 70% of Montanans choose to utilize every federal election — and we cannot ask our friends and neighbors to choose between their health and their vote.
But though this is imperative — a transition to vote by mail isn’t simple.
That’s why I’m calling on the state to provide funding to counties with tribal satellite voting locations, for the specific purpose of ensuring they can safely provide voter services at the same levels as county elections offices. We must also explore creative options like drive-throughs and mobile units to limit the interaction between voters and poll workers while still providing expanded hours, and to listen and work with Indian Country to make this adapted system work for them.
We must remove in-person requirements from registering to vote in the last 30 days of the election, allowing Montana voters to mail in their voter registration applications to limit the exposure of elections offices and voters in line.
And, we should initiate drive-through elections services wherever possible and assist election officers and volunteers in accessing safety equipment like masks, gloves, sanitizers, and other ways to keep healthy.
As the COVID-19 crisis progresses, there’s no time to wait to protect the most American value we have — our freedom to vote. Our leaders cannot hesitate to ensure that in the face of this global pandemic we have a democracy that leaves no one out and is stronger than ever before.
Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, represents Senate District 50 in the Montana Legislature, and is a candidate for Montana secretary of state. His entire nine-point COVID-19 plan is available at www.bennettformontana.com/covidplan.
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