How to make sure each vote counts
As voters went to the polling places of Georgia in socially distanced lines that had stretched for blocks and spent hours waiting, the potential for a similar disaster for November became clear. So did the inescapable truth that this fall, every voter will need a detailed flexible plan before trying to cast a ballot, and every state and municipality will need a clear workable plan to register all Americans who wish to participate, and to ensure that every one of those votes is promptly and accurately counted.
Nothing that happened in Georgia sends us any confidence that this is achievable in the time remaining before the federal and local elections this fall. If we learned anything from what happened last week, it is that waking up and heading to your polling place is no guarantee of actually being able to vote. Delays, untested machines, the lack of paper ballots, and overwhelmed election officials with insufficient training would each have doomed the Georgia primary, even without a pandemic in the mix. When they all occurred at once, it became the perfect storm.
Add the protests that have millions of Americans now questioning their federal and local governments, and it is clear that our election process faces many troubling challenges from the ground up and from the top down. While lots of voters, particularly voters of color, do not trust the system to allow them to register and count the ballots honestly, many local governments have proved incapable of establishing secure and trustworthy election protocols amid the current emergency.
The new movement against racism and police violence, the coronavirus crisis, and the unemployment crisis has awakened millions of Americans to this recognition that their voices are powerful and that their outcry is essential to the functioning of our democracy. But do they know how to utilize their voices to lasting political advantage? Do they have access to factual information about the candidates and the policies they support? Do they understand what their specific plans to vote will be?
For individuals, the time to start planning is now. You need to know when and how you will vote and, if voting in person, how you will get there, and how you will deliver the ballot. You need to know the deadline to register, the dates for early voting, the process to obtain a mail voting application, when and how to return your ballot, and the hours that the polling places will be open on Election Day. The time to register to vote is now because you cannot show up this fall and expect to cast a legal ballot.
Policymakers face a long list of action items before this fall. Every state must urgently revisit their existing mail voting programs to ensure they are accessible and confirm or expand their no excuse protocols so that every citizen can participate in them. They must ensure that all election deadlines are announced to the public, that voting materials, locations, and machines are protected manipulation, and that voters are given an option of online registration, including same day registration.
States must invest in voter education efforts, particularly for minority and immigrant communities, to ensure that people learn the process and that intimidation will not occur. It is critical that polling watchers are properly trained in advance and that they are widely available to assist voters with accurate and logistical information. State governments have to dedicate enough funds to make sure that every precaution is in place, with public health experts assigned to check over safe voting procedures.
An extraordinary array of factors has come up to play different roles in the political process this year. Safeguarding what is perhaps the most perilous election in our history will not be easy or cheap. Preparation and planning are our best weapons to ensure the survival of our democracy.
Amy Dacey is executive director for the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics at the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington and is the former chief executive officer for the Democratic National Committee.