Credit : Photo by Tiffany Tertipes

This column is part of our action toolkit to protect eligible voters’ health, safety, and access to the ballot box in 2020. Find more on this here.

Introduction

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the country and as racial justice protests continue nationwide, the United States finds itself at an inflection point. In this moment in particular, it is crucial that United States citizens determine the future path of this country. 

Voting remains one of the most important mechanisms for citizens to send a message to those in power, and in 38 states, it is the secretary of state who bears responsibility for ensuring that every citizen’s right to vote is protected and that elections are fair and accessible. In this unprecedented time, it is critical that secretaries of state and other chief election officials work closely with other state and local officials to protect our elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is this a problem? Just check out 2020 elections thus far.

The 2020 primary elections in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Kentucky demonstrated how important it is to protect our elections, particularly during a  pandemic. 

The Georgia primary election on June 9 was a powerful example of what happens when a secretary of state fails to do their job. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger oversaw an election process that turned into a fiasco, depriving many Georgians, especially those living in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods, of their right to vote. This came on the heels of Brian Kemp, Georgia’s previous secretary of state, waging a massive voter suppression effort in 2018 during his own gubernatorial election.

For months, experts warned Sec. Raffensperger that his decision to replace all voting equipment during a presidential election year was misguided. Doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic predictably made matters even worse: polling locations were plagued by equipment problems, poll workers were unfamiliar with the new equipment, locations opened late, and there was a shortage of poll workers due to widespread fear of contracting COVID-19. Some Georgians stood in line to vote for up to six hours, and while many persevered, many others left without voting. In addition to in-person voting problems, many voters never received the mail-in ballots they had requested months before. The hardest hit area was Georgia’s largest city, Atlanta, which is heavily populated by African Americans.

Similar systematic failures occurred in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin primary demonstrated what happens when a state fails to protect and expand voting opportunities for all eligible Americans. Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee—home to almost 600,000 people—slashed its number of  polling places from 180 to five. Many voters didn’t know about these changes because they were made on election day. Nearly 70 percent of Wisconsin’s African American population lives in Milwaukee County, where the city of Milwaukee is the county seat. 

In Kentucky, the governor and secretary of state worked together to significantly expand vote-by-mail options, which increased overall voter turnout and demonstrated the importance of providing a vote-by-mail option in every state. However, Kentucky also cut the number of in-person polling places for election day from 3,700 to just 200. In Jefferson County, where half of Kentucky’s Black voters live, there was just one polling place for 616,000 registered voters. 

In both Wisconsin and Kentucky, citizens who voted in person had few polling places to go to, and in some cases, were forced to wait in long lines or crowds despite CDC guidance to avoid such situations during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How do unsafe and unfair elections impact Millennials and Gen Z?

Together, Millennials and members of Gen Z will make up nearly 40 percent of the eligible electorate in the 2020 election. Secretaries of state and other chief election officials have an obligation to ensure that these generations, the most diverse generations in U.S. history, have access to the ballot box.

Young people have always faced systematic voter suppression throughout the voting process, but COVID-19 has only exacerbated the impact of voter suppression on our communities and our elections. The U.S. has a long and troubled history of imposing barriers to voting for certain communities, including Black, Indigenous, and Latinx voters, who are also being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We are also seeing racist voter suppression tactics masquerading as a response to the pandemic—making it abundantly clear that taking proactive measures to protect our elections is crucial.

How can we make elections safe and fair?

To ensure that our elections are safe, healthy, and fair during the COVID-19 pandemic, states should increase vote-by-mail options so that as many eligible voters as possible can vote by mail. Where allowable by state law, states should send every registered voter a mail-in ballot with pre-paid postage. At a minimum, all states should send every voter an application for a mail-in ballot with pre-paid postage. In addition, voters should be allowed to apply for vote by mail online. If all of this is done early enough, these measures can increase voter turnout, especially among communities of color and younger voters. 

With the exception of the five states that already conduct elections almost exclusively using all-mail voting—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah—switching from in-person to mail-in voting will require significant voter education. It is important to ramp up voter education efforts now so that everyone has the information they need to vote. This is particularly important for younger voters. A recent national poll of young Americans by CIRCLE found that a third of 18- to 24-year-olds—more than 15 million young people—currently lack critical information about absentee ballots and where to get information about their states’ mail-in voting policies. Furthermore, less than 25 percent of young people have used vote-by-mail in the past—a sometimes complicated process for first-time voters. States must take important steps to share as much information as possible in a timely manner so that voters are informed and ready to vote.  

But despite the importance of expanding vote-by-mail, taking those actions does not mean that states are off the hook when it comes to in-person voting. It will be critical to maintain access to in-person voting and ensure that polling places are as safe and accessible as possible, as eliminating or reducing in-person voting would negatively impact people and communities that traditionally have higher rates of in-person voting, including those who rely on same-day voter registration, voters who have language and translation needs, voters with temporary addresses, African-American voters, American Indian and Alaska Native voters, and voters with disabilities. Furthermore, states should, where feasible, increase the number of in-person voting locations in order to avoid long lines and increase the likelihood that voters can vote and maintain physical distance. In order for states to take these steps, Congress must provide full funding to expand the early voting period, mail-in voting, and online voter registration.

Who’s in charge of making these fixes?

In 38 states, the secretary of state plays a critical role in choosing whether or not to implement these solutions. In Alaska and Utah, it is the lieutenant governor’s responsibility. And, in ten states— Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—the board of elections or an appointed official assumes this role. These officials direct critical resources—from stocking pens in voting booths to choosing polling locations—that are meant to provide fair access to every eligible voter. It is their responsibility to ensure that elections are free, fair, and secure. Perhaps most importantly, the chief election official must ensure the results of elections are accurate and reflect the will of the people. This means allowing all people to equally exercise their right to vote, including young people, communities of color, people with disabilities, and other traditionally marginalized communities. 

Here are some ways that your secretary of state or chief election official can protect elections. 

Voter Registration

  • Make online voter registration and same-day registration available to all eligible voters.

Vote-By-Mail

  • Ensure all registered voters have the option to vote-by-mail, without providing a justification or excuse.
  • Where allowable by state law, states should send every registered voter a mail-in ballot with pre-paid postage. At a minimum, all states should send every voter an application for a mail-in ballot with pre-paid postage.
  • All registered voters should also have the ability to request an absentee ballot online.
  • Allow ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by election day, even if they aren’t received by the state for up to two weeks after election day due to postal delivery problems.

In-Person Voting

  • Ensure there are at least least 14 days of early voting to reduce lines on election day.
  • Where feasible, increase the number of polling sites on election day and expand voting hours to reduce crowds and lines.
  • Ensure that there are an adequate number of polling places, the polling places are accessible and secure, and the voting equipment properly functions.

In addition to the above steps, the chief election official should launch broad voter education campaigns to inform and prepare citizens to safely exercise their right to vote during the pandemic. This includes providing information about increased mail-in voting and early voting options. Finally, these officials must publicly call on Congress to provide the necessary funding to states to fully protect elections—and then ensure that the money is spent in ways that guarantee free and fair elections.

Conclusion

Despite how much of normal life has changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election will still take place on November 3. We have to remember the active roles that our secretaries of state and other chief election officials can play in deciding how fair, or unfair, that election will be. We must call on them to use their authority to actively dismantle the systemic discrimination and inequality that exist within their state’s election systems—not just in this election, but all elections. Young people have incredible political power. It’s time to use that power to hold our chief election officials accountable. 

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