Voting is already an ordeal. Election Day is a Tuesday, right in the middle of the work week. Certain voting laws make it almost impossible for those released from prison, non-English speakers and Native Americans to vote. Those out of town need to fill out forms to receive an absentee ballot in the mail.
But the coronavirus pandemic makes it hard for everyone to vote, not just the usual disenfranchised groups. Our political leaders need to take swift action to make sure the voting rights of all Americans are protected in the midst of this pandemic. These policies should make voting safe now, but also make it more accessible for elections long after 2020.
Americans should not be risking their lives to vote. No American should wake up on Election Day with a sense of dread because they have to turn out to vote and fear contracting coronavirus at the polls. Likewise, no American should dread voting because they feel they will be turned away because of racially discriminatory voting laws.
Lawmakers must obliterate any law that makes an American wake up on Election Day and not feel 100% empowered to vote. This should be their goal before coronavirus, during coronavirus and after coronavirus. But this pandemic can serve as a wake up call to the need to make voting more accessible to all.
The first step in creating a safe and accessible voting program is mail-in ballots. These ballots should be sent to every American weeks before the election. Voters can choose to send in the ballot by mail or still show up to vote in person if they lose the ballot or, for some reason, do not receive one. Some Americans don’t have easy access to the post office, so it is still important to offer in-person voting. However, since in-person voting would be less populated, it will be easier to socially distance and sanitize voting booths in between use.
Five states already have mail-in voting: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 other states have some form of mail-in voting for smaller elections like school board contests. As a country, it is time to find a way to expand this process.
Mail-in voting would not only help those concerned about the pandemic, but also working families, college students and those traveling abroad on Election Day. Instead of having to fill out forms to get absentee ballots, they would just receive one automatically. In this way, more people would vote because the complexity of the process would not deter voters.
While mail-in ballots will create chaos for civil servants tasked with counting ballots and anxiety for the American public and the media waiting for delayed results, there are still other safe options.
Election Day could be extended into an election week or month. This would allow people to vote when it is convenient for them. This would help to prevent voter disenfranchisement of those who work or care for children during the hours of a normal Election Day by providing more flexibility for voters. It would also reduce the number of people showing up to a polling location at one time, allowing for social distancing and frequent sanitization.
States should increase voter education so that voters can easily understand the options for voting and learn more about the measures being put in place to ensure that it is a safe experience. The more that Americans understand the process, the less fear they will have, and the more likely it is they will turn out to vote.
Only 58% of the eligible voting population turned out to vote in 2016, and turnout is even lower for midterm elections.
These are all suggestions that would directly help voters participate during a pandemic, but the measures to make voting easier should not stop here. These efforts could help to greatly improve turnout in all elections.
Before the pandemic, some Americans have been systematically deprived of voting by a pattern of disenfranchisement. Several Republican-led efforts have helped to reduce the number of voters throughout American history and, heading into the presidential election, President Donald Trump is looking to continue that strategy.
Politico reported that Trump’s reelection campaign has launched a massive legal fight to stop the Democratic proposals to expand voting access such as voting by mail.
“The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said on Fox and Friends about the Democratic voting proposals. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
This is blatant proof that the Republican Party has acknowledged that when less people vote, they win. When our Constitutional rights as Americans are suppressed, Republicans win.
This tactic didn’t work in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary that was held in-person during the peak of the pandemic. A Republican-led court overturned an attempt to delay the election, arguably in hopes that the Republican candidate would win because the Democratic voters would stay home and stay safe. The number of polling locations was reduced due to a shortage of polling workers willing to turn out during the pandemic, so the voting sites were crowded and dangerous. All over the internet, there were photos of masked voters held signs that said “This is ridiculous” as they lined up outside polling areas. Still, the Democratic candidate won.
The people of Wisconsin should not have had to risk their lives to vote in the middle of a pandemic. But pandemic or not, voting should be easy and safe.
There should not be cumbersome rules that target certain minorities. There should not be a single day of voting that forces many Americans to miss work to vote or opt not to vote at all. There should not be crowded polls in a time when crowds are forbidden.
The right to vote is sacred in America, It is time for elected leaders to start acting that way.