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Voting Is Now a Public Health Issue

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People wait in line to vote in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

By Isabella Garcia

Georgia's mid-June primary was the latest example of pandemic-induced voter suppression. Long lines at polling stations stretched for blocks and blocks as socially distanced voters waited for several hours to vote in person. In Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and is the state's most populated county, some voters waited past midnight to cast their ballot.

Scenes like the one in Georgia—and Wisconsin before that—have ignited a national conversation about voting by mail. In response, President Trump has claimed that voting by mail "will lead to massive fraud" and favor the Democratic Party. Notably, Twitter even placed a fact-checking warning on one of Trump's tweets about voting by mail, breaking with its previous practice of not calling out Trump's falsehoods.

Vote by mail does not favor one party over another, a 2020 study from Stanford University found. Additionally, a recent survey by Pew Research Center showed that 70% of Americans favor allowing people to vote by mail. Even when broken down by political party, 87% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans favor expanding mail-in voting.

"Undermining voter confidence in the system is a form of voter suppression," said Raúl Macías, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Millions of Americans have voted by mail safely and securely for decades."

The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, has recommended states provide a universal vote-by-mail option to hold fair elections during the pandemic.

As of May 2020, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have "no excuse" absentee voting, and five other states conduct elections entirely by mail with limited in-person voting options. However, 16 states still require voters to provide an "excuse" to receive an absentee ballot. While most of the "excuse-required" voting states have ruled the novel coronavirus outbreak is a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot, four of them—Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, and Texas—have not made the necessary changes to allow absentee voting widely available during the pandemic.

In Texas, the state Supreme Court went as far as to block a ruling that would allow Texans to use the pandemic as a reason to vote by mail. As it stands, Texas will only send absentee ballots to voters who are 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county during the election period, or confined to jail.

According to MOVE Texas, a nonprofit organization focused on civic engagement for youth in Texas, the ruling is anti-voter and could lead to voter suppression by forcing residents to choose between their health and voting. But, seeing anti-voter decisions from the state government is not a surprise to the MOVE team.

"In the past, we've seen elections as a statewide issue," said Raven Douglas, political director of MOVE Texas. "But, after the 2019 legislative session where we were able to defeat […] a really bad anti-voter bill, we came together with a number of ally organizations and decided we could no longer rely on our state government to pass pro-democracy reform."

So, in addition to starting a petition to voice the organization's disappointment in the Texas Supreme Court ruling against mail-in voting, MOVE Texas is turning to local officials to help voters in other ways. Douglas noted that county officials can greenlight curbside voting options, extend clerk's office hours, provide extra drop boxes, and more.

"You don't have to wait on your governor or your secretary of state to pass guidance, you can do that directly with your elections administrator and your county clerks," Douglas said.

Macías also acknowledges the need for in-person voting expansion during the upcoming elections.

"We think it's really important that every voter has the opportunity to vote by mail this election, but also in-person voting has to be maintained," Macías said. That means modifying polling places to fit social distancing guidelines, expanded early voting, making voter registration easier online or by mail, and investing in education programs about how this election might be different from what voters are used to.

Additionally, Macías notes that for most states to scale up their vote by mail systems to handle a much higher volume of ballots, they will need new equipment, such as ballot sorters, signature-verification software, optical scanning devices, and enough printers to handle the expected increase of applications and ballots.

"We really want to see Congress send more money to help elections officials conduct their elections," Macías said. "This is really the time when the federal government needs to step up. It's too important."

In Michigan, Voters Not Politicians, a pro-democracy organization, is advocating for an even more radical solution: skipping the application process and just sending absentee ballots to all voters, with postage-paid return envelopes, for the November election, through a campaign called VoteSafe.

"We're running out of time," Nancy Wang, Voters Not Politicians' editorial director, said. "Our campaign started seven weeks ago and with every day it's becoming harder and harder."

VoteSafe is asking state officials to take other measures to fight voter disenfranchisement, such as supplying secure ballot drop boxes and accessible polling locations that follow protocols for sanitization and social distancing, increasing funding for ballot security and tracking, and expanding access to local clerks' offices leading up to Election Day.

"We wouldn't be blazing trails here, we would really be following best practices," Wang said, citing the expert advice the organization received from the former elections director for Denver. Colorado is seen as a leader in election integrity and pro-voter policies.

One of those best practices is running a culturally competent education campaign, meaning that Wang and her team must be sensitive to different communities' history with voting and cater to that. For example, Wang says, some people don't trust the U.S. Postal Service, so there must be enough drop boxes for physical ballots and in-person polling sites for voters who may be deterred by having to send their ballot through the mail.

"You need to make sure you're creating a system that doesn't disenfranchise voters for other reasons," Wang said. To do this, Voters Not Politicians has partnered with community groups across Michigan to make sure the messaging and education surrounding the election is sensitive and resonates with the state's communities.

"This issue is really a concern for organizations that work not just in voting rights spaces," Wang said. "There is a lot of really great work being done by other groups in the state."

Partnerships with organizations that don't strictly deal with voting rights can also help show that voting by mail is not a partisan issue, Wang says. A majority of Michigan voters are supportive of expanding voting options—67% of voters approved a 2018 proposal to expand voting by mail.

"We should be trying to make it easier to vote for everyone, particularly in this election cycle," Macías said. "We shouldn't be asking voters to choose between their health and their vote."

That same sentiment is what prompted the nonpartisan organization Democracy North Carolina to join several other voting and elections organizations in a lawsuit demanding that the state take "necessary steps to guarantee a fair, safe election in November."

"The decision to sue came down to the fact that our general assembly has a history of either inaction on voting rights issues, or outright hostility to voting rights," said Tomas Lopez, the group's executive director.

What's needed, according Democracy North Carolina's suit, is a relaxation of voter registration requirements, making in-person voting safer and ballot drop boxes available, and easing the process of absentee voting. While North Carolina is a no-excuse absentee voting state—meaning anyone can apply to receive an absentee ballot in the mail—absentee voters must get the signatures of two witnesses or a notary for their absentee ballot to be counted.

According to Lopez, 4% of North Carolina voters voted by mail in 2016, but the state board of elections predicts 30% to 40% of voters will vote by mail this year. Lopez fears that with social distancing orders, absentee voters won't be able to acquire two witnesses, or a notary, and will either not submit their ballot, or submit it and have the ballot rejected.

"All the stuff that we're doing is about trying to make sure that our election rules are responsive to the reality that people are having to live in," he said.

Another reality is that COVID-19 is disproportionally affecting Black and brown communities, the same communities that suffer the most from voter suppression efforts.

"One of the really concerning parts of this is that, absent the kind of changes we are putting forward, voting access for Black and brown North Carolinians is going to take a double hit, from COVID and all the ways which it's hitting communities, and from all the ways the election rules are failing to respond," Lopez said.

"The election is already different, the question is whether the rules are going to respond to it or not," Lopez said. "All of these COVID response issues are rooted in things we'd like to see in November."

Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine.

ISABELLA GARCIA is a former solutions journalism intern for YES!.

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