Protecting The Right To Vote During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The dysfunctional, dangerous and shameful election last week in Wisconsin should be a cautionary tale for elected officials at every level of government. For the health of our representative democracy and the well-being of all Americans, the chaos and partisanship that took hold there can’t be repeated in states around the country this November.

Photo Credit: Patricia McKnight, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By refusing to move the election or provide adequate alternative voting options as they dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans used their gerrymandered majorities in the Wisconsin legislature to force an impossible choice on the people they are supposed to represent: forgo your civic responsibility and stay healthy or cast a ballot and endanger yourself and your community. It remains unthinkable that health care experts would tell citizens that social distancing is a necessity to combat this virus and then politicians forced them to congregate in large groups and wait in long lines to vote. Poll workers afraid for their health did not show up. The city of Milwaukee normally has 180 polling elections for its 595,000 citizens — this week there were only five. No matter the outcome, the election in Wisconsin has been a miscarriage of democracy. The fact that Republicans’ brazen voter suppression tactics did not work does not change the fact that it should never happen again.

The COVID-19 virus has impacted, sometimes disproportionately, every state in the country and people of every age, race, and background have contracted the virus. Given that the virus is likely to return in the fall, if we do not start taking measures now to protect the franchise, our current voting procedures will put the health of all Americans — no matter their political preference — at risk. Congress must fully fund — and states must be equipped to implement — measures that ensure every eligible American is able to safely cast a ballot in a way that does not put themselves, their families, and their communities at risk.

The last COVID-19 response bill that passed Congress included $400 million in election funding, but that is just a down payment on what is actually needed. At a minimum, election experts that have found that states will need between $2–4 billion to fully implement key measures that will be needed to protect voters. This money must be appropriated quickly so that states can begin the work of preparing new safe, secure voting systems.

At the state level, governors, state legislators, and election administration officials must start planning now and take action over the next sixty days so that they can take a number of steps — and pass legislation if necessary — to prepare for a functional election in the fall. The measures that states should adopt include:

• Expanding no-excuse absentee and vote-at-home measures in a way that ensures that there are not unnecessary burdens on people who want to cast a ballot. Voting at home is already used in a substantial way without any indication of fraud — in Oregon, Utah, Florida and other states.

• Expanding the ability to register to vote to include online options and same day voter registration to minimize in-person contact.

• Providing safe and healthy polling places and extended early voting so that poll workers and those who want to cast a ballot in person have ample opportunities to do so while protecting themselves. Mandating early vote periods of one month will decrease an unhealthy Election Day crush.

• Increasing voter education so that people know all of the new options available to them to cast a ballot.

America has held elections during some of the most challenging times we have faced as a nation. During the Civil War, nineteen states in the Union enacted laws that allowed soldiers away from home to vote in the presidential election of 1864. During World War II, Congress asked states to change their voting laws and procedures in a way that allowed 2.6 million service members spread out to every corner of the world to vote.

Our political leaders during those times had the will to expand access to our service members during a time of crisis. Those in power today must show that same resolve so that every eligible American can safely cast a ballot this November. This is not a partisan issue — it is an American one. The right of the people to vote is a defining characteristic of the American experience. This is a test of both our resolve and the commitment of our leaders to our democracy. If we are to remain true to the ideals found in our Founding Documents, we must provide ways for our nation to conduct a fair — and safe — election in November.

82nd Attorney General of the United States. Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

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