What Congress and states must do to have safe and fair elections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic
© Getty Images

The sight of long lines of voters outside polling places in Wisconsin was both inspiring and heartbreaking, because those voters never should have been there amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The debacle in Wisconsin showed why we need state and local officials to take responsible action now to protect voting rights. We cannot let the November general election play out the way Wisconsin’s election mess did, with voters forced to choose between their health and their right to vote. With massive polling place closures, last minute court rulings that created confusion, and people having to wait in long lines in the rain, turnout was down significantly across the state, especially in Milwaukee.

Luckily, there are common-sense solutions that can prevent our elections from looking like Wisconsin. Expanding vote by mail, absentee voting, early voting, and other options can make sure everyone can make their voice heard in a safe and fair election. With these solutions, ensuring the right to vote is protected in the COVID-19 crisis is a challenge that we can meet and overcome if we work together.

Even while administrators and state officials from both parties have started to adopt these important and common-sense reforms, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE has begun to attack the bipartisan push for alternative options to vote.

ADVERTISEMENT

To be clear, President Trump’s attacks on these innovative solutions are wrong. Trump has made it no secret that his true goal is to stop more people from voting. It’s ironic that President Trump himself has voted by mail, but doesn't believe other Americans should have that right. It appears he is more interested in playing political games than ensuring every eligible American can vote in a safe, fair, and accessible way.

It also appears President Trump is out of touch with everyday Americans who want more options to cast their ballot. Recent polling by YouGov and Reuters shows Americans from all political parties support having a vote-by-mail option, and it is especially popular in states that already have robust vote-by-mail systems, such as Utah, Oregon, and Colorado.

Election officials and legislators considering changes to voting rules should not fall for Trump’s baseless attacks and instead put partisan politics aside to protect public health and ensure every eligible American can cast their ballot. Expanding vote by mail options is a great way to ensure more Americans can cast their vote in a safe manner. Plus, mail-in voting is a paper-based system that is not hackable, can easily be audited to ensure the election results are correct, and has already been tested and proven secure in states across the country.

However, simply moving to an all vote-by-mail system, as some have suggested, would leave many communities who do not have reliable access to postal service, including many Native Americans, as well as members of the disability community and people who move often, out of the voting process. Instead, our goal must be secure elections that protect our health and access to the polls for every eligible voter. Even if we expand the use of absentee ballots, we still need to make sure that polling places are accessible and safe for both election workers and voters.

When expanding mail-in and early voting options, state and local election officials need to make sure they have the right systems and infrastructure in place to ensure the process works smoothly and they are not inadvertently suppressing people’s right to vote. This includes removing restrictive absentee ballot processes and deadlines, establishing accessible ways for voters to get replacement ballots if their mail ballot doesn’t arrive or gets spoiled, and ensuring that if there’s a problem verifying a voter’s signature, the voter can resolve that issue conveniently.

ADVERTISEMENT

To make all this happen, we are going to need our leaders in Congress to step up. Congress must include significant funding - at least $4 billion - for our elections in the next COVID-19 stimulus package, and we appreciate Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Schumer slam Trump executive orders, call for GOP to come back to negotiating table Trump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE’s (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) diligent efforts to secure additional investments. Without this federal funding, states will be left without needed resources to ensure the November election goes on as planned. 

While going to the polls to vote in-person may seem out of reach for many of us given the COVID-19 crisis, there are solutions to this crisis, and we must work together to carry them out. There are real goals we can accomplish, and on the other side of this crisis, when we look and see that even amidst a global pandemic American democracy did not falter, we will be only stronger for it.

This is an unprecedented time with many unknowns, but what we do know is that the health and safety of Americans and the protection of our democracy is not something we are willing to compromise on and we cannot wait any longer to make the common-sense reforms necessary.

Karen Hobert Flynn is president of Common Cause.