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Vote-by-mail vital to salvage elections

Most of the concern over the coronavirus pandemic so far has focused on the economic fallout and the potential that the nation’s health care system could be overwhelmed with seriously ill people. But the virus poses another threat that could be even more profound: Elections across the country could be at risk.

Oregonians needn’t worry, because our vote-by-mail system is ideally suited to function uninterrupted by a public health emergency. But while many states use mail-in paper ballots for absentee voting and a few, such as Arizona, have expanded the option, most states are unprepared to conduct an entire election that way.

Congress should act now to require states to permit voting by mail and provide money to help them pay for it. The very foundation of our system of government hangs in the balance.

Three states held primary elections Tuesday despite restrictions on social interaction. Turnout in Florida was down dramatically as some poll workers refused to report to work and polling stations could not open. In Illinois, many voters were confused about where to cast ballots or whether they should leave home to vote.

Polling places were moved out of some nursing homes where residents usually vote, but the action came too late for residents to apply for mail-in ballots.

Ohio’s governor on Monday asked a court to delay the state’s primary, and when a judge denied his request, he canceled the primary anyway. It’s not clear when a new date will be set, because under Ohio law the governor doesn’t have the power to set an election day.

A number of other states — Maryland, Connecticut, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana among them — have postponed their primaries until May or June. But if the coronavirus pandemic has not eased enough by then, there could be more delays.

None of this would be necessary if all states simply followed Oregon’s lead and permitted all voters to cast ballots by mail. Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii conduct all elections by mail, and all states allow it to varying degrees. Some permit what is known as “no-excuse absentee” voting.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has long called for a national vote-by-mail policy, originally to address concerns about election security. In addition to making voting more convenient and thus boosting participation, voting by mail creates a paper trail making recounts and spot audits easy, and removes the risk of using the internet, which is vulnerable to hacking.

Last week, Wyden introduced a new bill, this one aimed at helping states conduct elections despite coronavirus restrictions.

The measure would give all Americans the right to vote by mail if 25% of states declared an emergency related to the coronavirus. It would provide $500 million in federal funding to help states prepare.

Ramping up a statewide vote-by-mail system quickly is easier said than done. That’s why it’s imperative to start preparing now.

The right to vote should never be threatened by a health emergency.