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What if coronavirus affects Election Day?

The United States’ presidential election may be the most important election for the environment ever. 

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives us only 10 years to halve our emissions and avoid a climate catastrophe. To do that, we need world leaders to prioritize the planet. 

But what happens if, come Election Day, coronavirus forces people to remain home? 

A recent survey by Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans think coronavirus will affect the U.S. presidential election. Seventy percent of those polled favor the option to vote by mail for the election. 

But how that preference plays out in November is another story. In Texas, for example, the state’s Supreme Court just put on hold a rule that expanded voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

A possible connection between COVID-19 cases and in-person voting during primaries in Wisconsin, however, may force states like Texas to rethink that policy come November.

Currently five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — conduct their elections by mail. To ensure every American can vote, states should learn from these systems.

“To avoid long lines that would make social distancing difficult on Election Day, states would need to make early and absentee voting as well as voting by mail more available for the electorate,” said Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American studies at Notre Dame, in a recent interview. “Citizens will be looking for options beyond going to their polling places on Nov. 3, and states need to provide them.”

But that doesn’t mean states aren’t without challenges. Many systems without a large capacity for remote voting face financial hurdles and limited personnel, all while in a time crunch and global pandemic.  

What about voting online? That seems like an ideal situation, as much of the workforce has transitioned to working from home relatively seamlessly. 

Voting, however, isn’t like running a Zoom meeting, and even the countries who have tried it — like France, Canada and Australia — have only scratched the surface. There’s just no infrastructure in place to make this option a reality. 

Without proper measures in place, like voting by mail, the U.S. risks excluding a sizable chunk of their population from voting. And if people can’t vote in an election, or refuse to because they fear for their health, then it is a failure of American democracy, whose backbone is a representative electorate. 

In many states, absentee or early voting by mail do exist. If your state is one of them and you’re worried about voting in person, then take advantage of these options. In the meantime, ensure you’re registered to vote

And no matter how you vote this Election Day, Vote Earth. By voting for the right leaders, we can create a more sustainable future for the planet and ourselves.