The coronavirus pandemic is making lawmakers and election experts rethink the way Americans vote.
Last week, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a new proposal to completely overhaul the U.S. voting system in order to ensure Americans can safely vote amid the coronavirus pandemic. Her plan was released the same day Wisconsinites were faced with the choice of risking their health to participate in the presidential primary or forfeiting their right to make their voices heard and staying home.
Wisconsin, like most states, is under a stay-at home order. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had attempted to safeguard citizens from the coronavirus outbreak by requesting every state voter be sent an absentee ballot, but the Republican-controlled state legislature denied that action. The governor then tried to postpone the election, but that measure was struck down by the conservative state Supreme Court the day before the election. The Court also upheld that any mail-in ballots postmarked later than April 7 would be invalid, even though by this date many voters had not yet received their mail-in ballot.
These actions spurred many to decry the state Supreme Court’s ruling as voter suppression. On Monday, 14 Milwaukee-area residents filed a federal lawsuit seeking a revote of last week’s election.
“In times of crisis, when people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line, it is more important than ever that elected representatives are held accountable,” Warren said in a Medium post detailing her plan to strengthen the electoral system. “There is no room for partisanship when it comes to protecting the basic machinery of our democracy.”
Warren’s proposal calls for $4 billion in new election funding, 30 days of required early voting, and a mail-in ballot to be sent to every registered voter in the country.
The Massachusetts senator also called on Congress to ensure states have all the resources they need to prepare for upcoming elections in a way that protects voters and reduces barriers, including offering hazard pay for poll workers.
“The single most important step the federal government can take to protect our elections during this pandemic is to provide immediate and adequate funding to states to make the changes needed to ensure that every eligible American can vote,” Warren wrote. “States generally foot the bill for running elections, with limited funding from the federal government. The coronavirus crisis is stretching states to the limit, and without substantial funds dedicated to elections, states will struggle to make the necessary adjustments to their election process.”
Warren isn’t the only one rethinking the way Americans vote. A recent proposal introduced by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon called for 20 days of early voting in all states and a guarantee that every registered voter would be able to request a mail-in ballot. Klobuchar, alongside former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, released a video promoting expanded vote-by-mail and outlining the proposed legislation, urging voters to sign a petition supporting vote-by-mail.
Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s (ACLU) Voting Rights Project, said many of the proposals in both of these bills are also things the ACLU is advocating for. “No excuse absentee mail-in voting for all eligible voters is something that we are certainly calling for and has been called for across the board,” Lakin said, pointing out that this includes measures like universal distribution of ballots. “So everyone gets either an application or, even better, every registered voter gets an actual mail-in ballot that they return.”
These measures are not only essential to protect public health, but they are vital to increasing voter turnout and addressing systemic disenfranchisement of low-income communities and communities of color.
In late March, the National Task Force on Election Crises, a coalition formed to protect free and fair presidential elections from potential threats, issued an 11-page guideline for policy-makers and officials on how to promote safe participation in the 2020 election. “We offer this guide to help state and local policy makers and election officials maximize the opportunity for all eligible voters to cast their votes without undue risk to their own health or to the broader community, and, of course, to have those votes counted,” the document reads.
The proposed guidelines include increasing vote-by-mail capabilities, as well as measures such as moving polling places to areas where rates of infection are less dense, and maximizing the number of days in which early voting is possible.
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Restrictions to mail-in voting would likely have dire consequences for voter turnout in the coming November election even if the threat of the virus has eased. But it is worth noting that even before the coronavirus crisis, expanded access to absentee voting would be hugely beneficial to the already disenfranchised low-income communities and communities of color, as well as for those who are unable to physically make it to the polls.
People of color are already widely overrepresented in low-income communities, who face financial barriers to voting already, Lakin explained. Transportation costs, the price of postage, and other considerations can actually be prohibitive for people trying to get an ID or buy a book of stamps. Long wait times at polling locations also disproportionately affect anyone who can’t afford to lose a day’s work.
“We actually had a lawsuit that we filed earlier this week in Georgia challenging the state’s failure to provide pre-paid postage on the envelopes for mail-in ballots as a poll tax,” Lakin said.
With the virus, all of these problems are magnified. Black and Brown citizens make up a large percentage of essential workers and gig workers who face increased exposure to the virus. With fewer polling places and social distancing measures still in place, lines to vote are expected to be even longer, with some voters forced to wait for hours to cast their ballot. With the economy still in steep decline, fewer people can afford to sacrifice income, which makes taking a day to vote financially untenable.
“It goes back to this question of the things that have disproportionate effects on low-income communities that are playing out more aggressively right now,” Lakin said.
In fact, physically going to a polling place is more dangerous for voters of color, as data shows that majority-black counties have almost six times the rate of deaths for COVID-19 than majority-white counties.
“Voters who fear going to the polls because of the health risks, especially if those health risks that they are seeing are having particularly devastating effects on their particular communities, that’s a very real thing,” Lakin said. “Having a person have to pay the postage on the ballot is very much forcing a person to pay to vote.”
And as for voter ID laws, obtaining an ID now in order to vote may be even harder with DMVs closing all over the country. The fact that these laws are still even being considered—Kentucky quietly approved new photo ID requirements less than a month ago—“really demonstrates some very troubling thought processes about who we want to be able to vote during this period of time,” Lakin said.
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Republicans have fought hard against revamping the voting process. President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that mail-in voting leads to increased voter fraud—there is no evidence that this is true. Other Republicans argue against any federal voting legislation, leaning on the party’s traditional prioritization of federalism and states’ rights over congressional mandate.
But as Warren told NPR in an interview, voters should not have to choose between “being healthy and exercising their right to vote as Americans.”
“The pandemic has exposed how vulnerable our voting system is,” she said.