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Saving November’s Election

Public Citizen News / May-June 2020

By Angela Bradbery

This article appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

In early April, with most of the country under a lockdown to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, Wisconsinites headed out to the polls.

It was primary day, and a controversial state Supreme Court justice was up for reelection. The state Supreme Court had rejected the governor’s attempt to delay the election, so the nation watched in horror as voters in that state were forced to choose between preserving their health and exercising their right to vote.

More than 200 polling places were closed in key cities, leading to four- and five-hour waits, and absentee ballots didn’t arrive in time. As a result, voters across the state were disenfranchised.

It was a specter that galvanized Public Citizen – which had begun pushing for measures to ensure a safe election in November – to work even harder to ensure that what happened in Wisconsin doesn’t happen again.

“We are fast approaching a dire situation,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “The presidential election is just months away and we are in the grip of a global pandemic. As we saw in Wisconsin, states aren’t prepared to hold an election safely. Congress must act.”

States Aren’t Prepared

Experts agree that it is unlikely our country will return to “normal” by November’s election. Doing so would require a highly effective COVID-19 treatment to be found or a vaccine to be produced. While a drug developed to treat Ebola has shown promise, it merely lessens the duration of hospital stays rather than quickly cure the illness. Also, it is questionable as to how much can be manufactured in the coming months. Vaccines, meanwhile, take extensive testing, so even on a fast track, a vaccine – if developed – won’t be available until 2021 at least.

So how can the U.S .hold an election in a pandemic? It will require states to prepare by dramatically increasing voting by mail. In five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – all voters receive ballots by mail automatically, and most other states provide mail-in ballots to voters without requiring voters to explain their request.

But voting by mail isn’t a panacea, because not everyone can vote by mail. Those who need language assistance to vote and people with disabilities who rely on voting machines will be unable to participate in democracy if polls are closed. Native Americans who reside on reservations may lack street addresses.

To ensure that everyone can participate in the election, state and local officials should do their best to keep polling places open and safe for voters and election workers alike, and they should take steps to guard against long lines and mass confusion, Public Citizen maintains.

That means that states must:

  • Extend early voting to at least 15 days before the election, so people coming to the polls don’t have to crowd together;
  • Allow no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail (meaning that voters don’t have to provide a reason for asking for a ballot to vote by mail);
  • Offer online voter registration and same-day registration; and
  • Procure cleaning supplies to frequently sterilize voting equipment;

“Voting is sacred in America, which is why our political leaders have ensured that elections were held even during the most tumultuous times, such as wars and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic,” said Aquene Freechild, co-director of Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign. “To make it happen, though, will take money and political will.”

Prodding Congress to Act

To prepare, states will need $4 billion, according to experts. The U.S. House of Representatives included that money in a package for states in March, but the Senate reduced the amount to $400 million.

The House also included a national requirement for both 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail, including mailing a ballot to all registered voters in an emergency. Those provisions were stripped from the Senate bill before it became law.

To prod Congress to send money to the states, Public Citizen has been mobilizing activists nationwide through online town hall meetings, webinars and action alerts urging people to contact their lawmakers.

“We must have an election in November,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen. “We can’t let what happened in Wisconsin happen in November. The good news is, we don’t have to if lawmakers act. Our democracy hangs in the balance.”

Tell your member of Congress to give states the resources they need to hold a safe election in November: https://bit.ly/3b1NKr9.