Even before COVID-19, the U.S. has had one of the lowest voter turnout rates among developed countries.
This is a critical election year, and even before the pandemic, it was a voting season unlike any before in the nation’s history. Initially, voter turnout rates were projected to be high throughout 2020, and the primaries started out by living up to that prediction, with a surge in Democratic voter turnout overall (though not when it came to young voters, as the Bernie Sanders campaign had hoped). With COVID-19 and stay-at-home measures in place, much about the coming elections seems to be up in the air and relatively unpredictable. COVID-19 has already meant the postponement of primary elections in several states, voting days that are becoming more like voting weeks or months, shifts in voter turnout and voters risking exposing themselves to the virus in order to vote at their in-person polling stations in places where there are no alternatives in place. The ACLU and other voter rights-focused groups are increasing pressure on Congress to make vote-by-mail and expanded access to voting go-to practices across the country. In the current reality, voters in many areas are being forced to choose between their voting rights and their physical safety, as a Business Insider article published in March explores.
A federal judge ruled on May 19 that Texas must allow voters afraid of catching COVID-19 to vote by mail. Meanwhile, President Trump has threatened battleground states like Nevada and Michigan, which have been making absentee voting plans due to the virus, with reduced funding. Public pressures continue to build across the country to push states to extend their absentee voting programs due to the virus. A Pew Research Center poll published in late April showed a “sizable majority” of Americans favor a vote-by-mail option amid the pandemic.
As a FiveThirtyEight article from March explores, the pandemic has the potential to permanently shift the way Americans vote. But the challenges to polling station access posed by COVID-19 are exacerbating the shortcomings of an already less-than-ideal voting system in America.
Breaking the Barriers to Voting
Long before this pandemic, the U.S. has typically lagged behind most developed countries in the world on voter turnout, according to Pew reporting. Almost 92 million eligible Americans did not vote in the 2016 presidential elections, according to the opening line of a 2018 report titled “Increasing Voter Participation in America,” by the Center for American Progress.
A 2018 Pew survey that assessed overall public views of the political system in the U.S. found, “Overwhelming majorities of Americans—including most Republicans and Democrats—say it is very important that elections are free from tampering (90% say this) and that no eligible voters are prevented from voting (83%).”
But obstacles like lack of accessibility to polling stations (voters in Texas on Super Tuesday, for instance, had to wait six hours to cast their ballots), longstanding racially-targeted voter suppression tactics largely on the part of Republicans, and the ongoing suspicion of election tampering and faulty voting machines all likely work to potentially disincentivize people from voting.
New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute, cites unfairly drawn congressional districts and voter suppression efforts like “imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls” as major challenges to accessibility for U.S. voters. And concerns like the threat of Russian election tampering and potentially faulty voting machines (as witnessed in the 2016 elections) disincentivize people from voting as they don’t trust their vote will be fairly counted, as detailed in a 2016 Washington Post report.
Eliza Sweren-Becker, who focuses on voting rights and elections for the Brennan Center, says there are institutional challenges as well as policy challenges to voter accessibility in the U.S. She says, thanks largely to pressures from a public that is increasingly educated and concerned about voter access, several states and cities have revamped their policies to better serve voters.
“One thing we’ve seen over the last several years is that voters are paying a lot of attention to democracy and democracy reform across the country,” she says. “That fact is reflected in the number of bills advanced by state legislatures across the country to bring pro-voter reform to their states.”
She says that is also reflected by the passage of HR 1 by the House of Representatives last year—the first bill that the House put forward—which includes democracy reforms like automatic voter registration, restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions, and redistricting reform, all of which, she notes, the Brennan Center has supported for years.
“People are paying attention to democracy reform and they want greater access to the ballot,” she says. “And we’re starting to see legislators at the state and federal level taking note of that and trying to put those reforms into place.”
The state with the highest voter turnout rates in recent elections has been Minnesota. Risikat Adesaogun, press secretary for the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, attributes the trend to the fact that Minnesota has a number of voting rules in place aimed at accessibility. The state allows for same-day voter registration, online voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting (which lets people vote absentee without any excuse, up to 46 days before Election Day)—options that are unavailable in many U.S. states with more restrictive rules.
Sweren-Becker notes that, over the years, the Brennan Center has found that restrictions across the country like voter purges, strict voter ID laws, or other barriers to voting have had the biggest impacts on communities of color and traditionally disenfranchised communities.
She mentions Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court case that, in effect, undermined a provision of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ensured states with a history of enacting discriminatory voting tactics had to have any new election policy approved by the U.S. Justice Department in a process known as “preclearance.” The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case essentially gutted that portion of the landmark Civil Rights-era anti-discrimination legislation, as outlined by the Atlantic in 2018.
“The whole preclearance process, federally, has not been in effect since 2013, and as a result we’ve seen policies enacted in the last seven or so years that likely would have been prevented by the preclearance process,” says Sweren-Becker. “A strong vibrant democracy requires the broadest base of voter participation, and our government works best when it’s accountable and representative of the people. So we should make it easier for citizens to cast their ballots—not more difficult.”
The Center for American Progress report offers an in-depth look at current barriers to voting, and strategies necessary to potentially increase voter turnout. Its recommendations “to drive voter participation and make the process of voting more convenient for eligible Americans” include streamlining registration and allowing teens to register before they turn 18; making voting more convenient via absentee or vote-by-mail access for all; restoring the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people; strengthening civics education in schools and investing in outreach.
While in some areas, the barriers to the polls have increased in recent years—and steepened dramatically in recent months due to the realities of the pandemic—many states, counties and organizations continue to implement and work toward initiatives to make voting easier.
Here are several examples of creative, locally-oriented efforts to simplify voting and boost voter turnouts in the long term:
1. Free postage to vote-by-mail, and automatic voter registration
One obvious way to make voting easier and more accessible—even during a pandemic—is to make voting by mail free and easy for every citizen.
Last year, Oregon lawmakers took steps to do just that, after they passed SB 861, which codifies paid postage for all election ballots. The state uses vote-by-mail as its standard voting system, sending mail-in ballots to all of its registered voters. Now, voters will no longer have to pay for postage on their mail-in ballots, beginning with the 2020 elections, as reported in detail in Portland’s Willamette Week.
The state’s governor, Kate Brown, who approved the legislation, has been a vocal advocate for making voting in general easier. In a recent article Brown wrote on the topic for the political action-focused organization Let America Vote, she lamented the tendency of politicians like Mitch McConnell, who make voting access a partisan issue.
“We have spearheaded innovative measures to make the ballot more accessible for voters,” she writes. She points out that Oregon was the first state to implement vote-by-mail elections, adding that it is “a cheaper, more secure method that allows voters with geographical constraints an easier way to vote.” Since becoming the first state to implement automatic voter registration, in 2016, Oregon, she notes, “has increased voter turnout more than any other state.”
Currently five states have a vote-by-mail system for all voters, and as the Brennan Center summarizes, more states have been implementing automatic registration systems in the last year. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that:
“As of April 22, 2019, 11 states and the District of Columbia provide automatic registration when citizens interact with state agencies such as the DMV, along with 7 other states that have passed legislation or committed administratively to create automatic registration systems, but not yet implemented it.”
2. Reining in voter ID requirements, which often prevent people in marginalized communities from voting.
While 36 states currently have identification requirements in place at polling stations, some are more restrictive than others, and many groups are actively working to dismantle the most marginalizing voter ID laws. There are several active efforts in place to roll back restrictive voter ID laws, which historically disproportionately target voters of color, as the ACLU reports on its voter ID fact sheet. The group also notes that obtaining an ID costs money, and as of their 2017 reporting, “11% of U.S. citizens—or more than 21 million Americans—do not have government-issued photo identification.” What’s more, they report, “nationally, up to 25% of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of whites.”
One recent example of success in dismantling strict voter ID laws came this February, as Native American voters in North Dakota reached a breakthrough settlement deal in a lawsuit over the state’s voter ID requirements, after years of legal battles, as the Center for Public Integrity reports. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued the requirements have disproportionately impacted Native American voters, and according to a joint statement by North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger and the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes, the settlement agreement “will ensure all Native Americans who are qualified electors can vote, relieve certain burdens on the Tribes related to determining residential street addresses for their tribal members and issuing tribal IDs, and ensure ongoing cooperation through mutual collaboration between the State and the Tribes to address concerns or issues that may arise in the future.”
3. Increased access for people with felony convictions to vote
The League of Women Voters, a civic engagement organization founded in 1920 after women finally won the right to vote in the U.S., has been active in the growing movement to dismantle voting barriers for people with felony convictions. America convicts and locks up felons at one of the highest rates in the world, and people—especially men—of color make up the majority of convicted felons. According to the ACLU’s most recent data on mass incarceration, the U.S. has almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoner population but just around 5 percent of the world’s population.
The League of Women Voters is currently challenging a bill in Florida that makes it harder for people with a felony conviction to register to vote, and has been an advocate of loosening voting restrictions for people with prior felony convictions, as part of their larger mission to expand overall voter access.
4. Preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds
New York passed a law in December, signed by Governor Cuomo, to allow 17-year-olds to preregister to vote. At least 20 other states also allow teenagers (usually between 16 and 17 years old, depending on the state) to pre-register to vote. The Center for American Progress lists this as one of its six key recommendations in its report, citing one benefit “is that, once a person registers to vote, that individual becomes part of a state’s voter file and is more likely to be contacted by campaign and grassroots efforts, which increase voter participation.”
5. Strengthening civics education and voter engagement.
As the Center for American Progress report notes, one of the key ways to encourage more people to vote is to better educate voters on local issues and encourage their engagement with local politics.
In Minnesota, for example (where many of the above strategies are already in place), Risikat Adesaogun says one of the key reasons for the state’s high voter turnout has been the Civic Engagement and Outreach Coalition, an outreach team the Secretary of State’s office has specially dedicated to educate Minnesotans about registration and the voting process.
The coalition, Adesaogun says, is a “partnership of over 80 nonpartisan organizations that work to connect with Minnesotans all across the state, to register eligible voters, to provide information about Election Day and to provide information about specific topics.”
COVID-19 is pushing more states to quickly adopt election reforms such as mail-based voting to make sure elections are accessible. If every state in the country were to implement a mail-based voting system that was free and easy to access, they could potentially dismantle many of the current barriers to voting and reduce the potential for future emergencies to interfere with the democratic process. It is both possible and beneficial to U.S. democracy to make voting easier for all.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. April M. Short is an editor, journalist and a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.