Update 461 — What Price for Democracy?
The Costs of Accommodating to COVID
The 2020 primary season is nearly done, a season of voting amid COVID. The experience has prepared the country for the adjustments and accommodations needed to conduct fair and legitimate elections in the fall. Problems old and new abound, from long and distanced voting lines to states facing massive demand for the mail-in alternative to standing in line.
Solutions to these and other obstacles to registration and voting are plentiful and outlined in the election funding provision of the House-passed HEROES Act, at a modest cost of $3.6 billion. Without extending the session, Congress has until next Friday to enact the provision before August recess.
Below, we examine the problems exposed in voting in the season of COVID, solutions available to protect the franchise, and the price of failing to fund a functional democracy.
Maintaining Election Integrity
In the long-run, the key to safeguarding America’s elections and democratic processes lies with the passage of H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These pieces of legislation would take critical steps to protect and expand the franchise. But before that can happen, Democrats must win in November.
Thirty-six states have now held primaries. Despite the pandemic, 20 state primaries had greater Democratic turnout than in 2016. Confusion over mail-in and in-person voting offers a preview of what voting in the general election will look like without additional action.
Yesterday, while five states held primaries, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation held a hearing entitled, “Secure, Safe, and Auditable: Protecting the Integrity of the 2020 Elections.” All of the witnesses testified to the importance of additional federal election funding and the need to combat misinformation concerning vote-by-mail (VBM).
Problem 1: In-Person Voting
The pandemic has created and exacerbated problems for state primaries. Anticipating the surge in absentee voting, states closed and consolidated polling locations and had fewer poll workers than usual. Surviving polling locations were poorly located in respect to areas with lower VBM applications. In Milwaukee, the number of polling locations dropped from 180 to just five. Voters in 14 states and D.C., particularly those in urban areas, encountered hours-long lines to vote. In Las Vegas, voters experienced lines up to seven hours long.
Voters also experienced other problems. In Pennsylvania and D.C., which implemented curfews due to protests, police officers erroneously told voters in line after curfew to disperse. Problems didn’t end at the front of the line. Numerous voting machines in Georgia malfunctioned or did not work due to inadequately trained poll workers, while in South Carolina, voters received incorrect ballots.
Problem 2: Absentee Voting
Record numbers of people have voted by mail in this year’s elections. State election officials have faced an avalanche of mail-in ballot applications and have been unable to process them in time for election day. Voters in at least 12 states and D.C. reported never receiving their ballots in time, despite some submitting applications weeks in advance.
Those who did receive their ballots faced increased disqualification rates. Per the Election Assistance Commission, about one percent of mail-in ballots were rejected in 2016, a rate still higher than that for votes cast in person. But in Kentucky’s Fayette County this year, 8 percent of primary ballots were tossed. In Brooklyn, almost 30 percent of ballots were ruled invalid.
Problems for absentee voters have tended to disenfranchise Democrats more than Republicans. A July poll found that 51 percent of Democrats plan to vote absentee in November, while 80 percent of Republicans plan to vote in person. Further, per the NAACP and the Center for American Progress, ballot disqualification rates are higher for minorities, who tend to be Democrats.
Solution 1: Protecting the Vote
Most states are going to conduct the November elections largely via mail. Already, 24 states have seen over half their ballots cast via absentee. A policy that ensures every voter can cast a ballot rests on three planks.
- Accessible Voting by Mail: Providing every eligible voter the option of casting their ballot via mail prevents Americans from having to decide between health and voting. Five states, including ruby-red Utah, already conduct all-mail elections. No evidence exists suggesting that VBM is less secure than voting in person. Twenty-nine other states plus the District of Columbia allow no-excuse absentee voting, and a recent Gallup poll shows that 64 percent of Americans are in favor of universal VBM.
- Maintain In-Person Voting With Extended Early Voting: In-person voting remains crucial since some eligible voters will not receive their mail-in ballot on time, will require assistance to vote, or prefer to vote at a polling site. This is especially true for voters with limited English proficiency and Native Americans, who often lack residential mailing addresses. To avoid hours-long voting lines, states must allow voters to come to the polls weeks in advance.
- Same-Day, Online Voter Registration: Online voter registration gives voters a safe method for registering and is already offered by 39 states and D.C. Same-day registration, currently enacted in 21 states and D.C., is increasingly important given the decline of registration this spring. States that allow same-day registration regularly have the country’s highest turnout figures. And these efforts have proven effective at turning out young voters and voters of color.
Per the Brennan Center, the above policies will cost $3.6 billion. The HEROES Act allocated these funds, and the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA), introduced by Sens. Klobuchar and Wyden in March, provides the policy frameworks. Both are buried in Senator McConnell’s legislative graveyard. Democrats must be prepared to fight for their inclusion in a final COVID package.
Solution 2: Protecting the USPS
In April, the United States Postal Service informed Congress that it would run out of money in September and requested $75 billion in emergency funding. Inadequate funding for the Postal Service will imperil more than just VBM. The USPS is critical to the country’s election infrastructure. In addition to delivering and returning mail ballots, the USPS distributes notices regarding polling sites, the date and time of Election Day, poll worker appointment letters, and even candidate certifications.
Recently, Trump mega-donor turned Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has taken steps to slow down mail delivery. An internal memo from last month outlined plans for the USPS to stop paying overtime. In multiple states, letters have gone out to post offices informing them of plans to cease operations. Detroit-area mail carriers were instructed to leave mail behind at processing facilities. This is a deliberate attempt by the Trump administration to undercut the functionality of the USPS right before an election that is going to rely on mail-in ballots.
Democracy Left to Democrats
Election Day is fewer than 90 days away. Republicans have given no indication that they plan to protect the integrity of the coming elections, instead adopting the same heads-in-the-sand, openly antagonistic attitude that has defined their pandemic response. At yesterday’s House Homeland Security hearing, just one Republican showed up and asked questions.
Without the additional resources from HEROES and the policy frameworks from the NDEBA, the long lines, late ballots, and disenfranchisement seen in state primaries will play out across the country. The solutions are obvious and obtainable, but it will fall to Democrats to ensure that November’s elections are safe, accessible, and fair.