Turning COVID-19’s Threat into Democracy’s Blessing
In a few short weeks, COVID-19 has upended life as we know it. This is understandable, given the threat this virus poses to our health. Less understandable is the upending of our election process, which undermines the very foundation upon which our nation was built: a shared commitment to strengthening America’s democratic process.
When shelter-in-place regulations were first issued in March, state and local election officials reacted in varying ways. The messiness and confusion surrounding how they did so stemmed from the fact that they were forced to act on their feet, without adequate warning or time to plan ahead. More recent primaries also serve as a warning of how badly things can go wrong when partisan bickering prevails over principles; the consequences of which disproportionately affect historically disenfranchised voters.
Vote.org’s mission is “to leverage technology to simplify voter engagement, increase voter turnout, and strengthen American democracy.” In socially distant times like these, our online tools and SMS-enabled platforms are particularly well suited to do just that. We’ve even added a new link to our website, https://www.vote.org/covid-19/, where state-by-state primary information is regularly updated.
But now that we have exhausted every technological means of keeping voters informed and engaged, we must rely on policymakers at all levels of government to ensure that every citizen has an opportunity to vote, and safely at that. To that end, we offer the following policy suggestions.
First, states that haven’t made online voter registration available should do so immediately.
Eleven states still rely on paper-only registration, which requires forms to be printed out and mailed in. These states should take immediate action to add online registration to their existing repertoire of registration tools, so that residents can register and update their existing information, without having to leave the safety of their homes.
Second, states that require voters to meet specified criteria in order to vote by mail, should change their policies so that everyone can do so.
Doing so will allow voters to prioritize their own safety, without sacrificing their voice. Additionally, states should offer multiple methods of requesting mail-in ballots, including online, in-person, telephonically, and by mail. Ideally, ballots would be provided to every registered voter, with a range of secure options for casting completed ballots, including designated drop-boxes and pre-paid postage. States should also confirm receipt of ballot requests and submissions, to assure voters that their votes will be counted.
Third, states should decrease the potential for COVID-19’s spread, by limiting the clustering of voters on Election Day.
This can be facilitated by allowing a minimum of two weeks of early in-person voting. Election officials should be required to follow public health guidelines in the selection and operation of polling places, including social distancing protocols, requiring sick poll workers to stay home, providing personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, and regularly cleaning frequently touched surfaces (including sanitizing voting machines between voters). Specific polling hours should also be reserved for those most who are vulnerable to COVID-19, and all jurisdictions should prepare for a surge in provisional voting due to voter confusion caused by changes in polling locations and protocols, as well as delays in the processing of voter registration applications.
Finally, federal, state, and local officials, in partnership with private industry and civic organizations like ours, should jointly commit the resources necessary to ensuring that our democracy is strengthened, rather than weakened, by this pandemic.
The $400 million allocated by the CARES act falls far short of what our country needs in order to protect our votes. Additional funding, coupled with focused advocacy efforts on the aforementioned policy suggestions, must be put in motion now, so as to uphold the integrity of our remaining primary elections and the General Election this fall. Abraham Lincoln once warned that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed it ourselves.” His words ring particularly true in perilous times like these, when the tendency to self-protect at the expense of everything else is at an all-time high. But the opposite can also be true, if we seize this opportunity to expand, rather than restrict, ballot access for all. Whichever path we ultimately choose, one thing is certain: how we proceed will test more than just our commitment to free and fair elections; it will illuminate who and what we value as a nation.