Congress must assure public health and democracy are secured this fall
As the coronavirus pandemic grips the country, our election infrastructure will be tested. With the potential for a second wave of infections returning this fall, policymakers on both the federal and state levels should act now to expand ballot access to prepare to conduct the election safely. Unlike primary elections, which can sometimes get postponed, federal law and the Constitution mandate the date of the general election. We are going to vote for president in November, and we need to do it safely.
With its primary falling during the eye of the storm this week, Wisconsin has shown how restrictive voting laws can wreak havoc on elections. The state law requires that a witness validates the identification of each voter, threatening to invalidate the ballots of many people who voted absentee, particularly senior citizens. Because many people have also been isolating themselves to avoid contracting the coronavirus, it can be a challenge to find a witness, particularly for all those voters who live alone.
Other states present glimmers of hope. In Arizona and Florida, with aging populations, primaries went on as scheduled last month. The turnout was not dampened as many had feared. Out in Maricopa County, home to over four million people, 2020 turnout in early and mail voting alone exceeded the total turnout for the entire 2016 Democratic primary. Allowing people to vote early in person or by mail is necessary not only because it grants people the option of casting their ballots from the safety of their homes, but also because it reduces crowding and the strain on polling locations, which are essential for all of these vulnerable communities.
The goal of a democracy should be that every eligible voter has a chance to participate. This should be a bipartisan goal. But President Trump and some Republicans have pushed back against measures to expand ballot access. Trump objected to spending federal funds to extend ballot access as part of the coronavirus relief package, calling it “crazy” in an interview last week. “They had levels of voting that if you would ever agree to it, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again.” To attempt to turn this discussion about enabling all Americans to vote into a purely partisan debate is deeply disappointing in this time of crisis.
There is no evidence that helping eligible voters cast ballots safely will aid Democrats. Polls show the elderly, and most vulnerable in this pandemic, lean right. Red states like Utah mail ballots to registered voters and allow them to vote in person if they choose, and it has not had the effect Trump predicts. It has instead improved participation. Some Republicans protest that states should be left alone to run elections, but that is not an excuse for failing to provide funding for such reforms. States can design the mail voting systems that best suit their circumstances as long as they meet the standard of providing remote ballot access in a time of crisis.
The problem of flawed “signature match” policies could cause trouble in dozens of states where they are on the books. In many states, voters may be removed from the rolls due to mistakes such as misread handwriting or the omission of a hyphen in a name, often without any notice from voters and no opportunity to fix. This practice would have prevented thousands of eligible voters from getting counted in the last midterm election if not for legal challenges by democracy groups. Without safeguards providing voters an opportunity to address potential issues, such matching policies could then disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible voters.
Our election infrastructure will be tested in November, and policymakers on both the federal and state levels should swiftly implement a series of fixes to assure Americans that voting will be conducted safely and easily. The important thing is for Congress to act now so the people do not have to choose between public health and a healthy democracy this fall. Every single day of preparation for the election this year is precious.
Trevor Potter is president of Campaign Legal Center and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Paul Rosenzweig is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. They are also both members of Checks and Balances.
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