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Low voter registration poses a threat to American democracy

a voter behind the screen of a voting booth

In addition to claiming over 119,000 lives in the U.S. and trashing the economy, the coronavirus is ravaging another pillar of American life: voting. 

According to the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, new voter registrations across 13 states increased in January and February 2020 as compared to the same months in 2016. But relative totals dropped precipitously once the virus hit in March. 

There are various reasons for this. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires states to offer voter registration to people obtaining licenses or renewals at motor vehicles departments, and to individuals seeking services at public assistance offices — but those voter registration outlets have been shuttered due to COVID-19. In addition, state stay-at-home orders have curbed get-out-the-vote registration drives that traditionally accompany large public gatherings, as well as door-to-door efforts to register new voters.

This decline in registration is a travesty for American democracy. The November election is fewer than five months away. It will not just decide the fate of the many individual candidates running for office across federal, state and local ballots. It will also determine whether “We the People” will continue to self-govern as the Constitution’s framers intended, or whether America will embrace its descent into authoritarianism, which is an unmistakable feature of the leadership style of President Donald J. Trump, his attorney general, William Barr, and the enabling Republican-controlled Senate. 

This concern about unmooring from democracy itself is not a partisan one. It’s not about “Team Blue” or “Team Red.” It’s about Team America.

Here’s what can be done about it.

Register to vote immediately — and I mean right now. The government-sponsored website,, is a good place to start. 

Find a few people in your network who aren’t regular voters and persuade them to register. Studies show that cynicism and apathy are major impediments to voting in America and that social pressure is the best antidote. Individual votes matter — if they didn’t, folks like Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t try so hard to corrupt U.S. elections. Recall, too, that President George W. Bush won the presidency by 537 votes in Florida and changed the course of history forever. Remind your friends that their votes are important and that every other issue they care about — be it health care, climate change or the economy — hinges on a functioning electoral system that holds elected officials accountable to the people.

While you’re at it, request a mail-in ballot. Five states — including the Republican-leaning state of Utah — have been voting exclusively by mail for a while, suggesting that the practice can work well, and that Trump’s cries of widespread voter fraud by mail are bunk. Studies in fact show that out of a billion votes cast over a period of four years, a paltry 31 votes were credibly fraudulent and that most voter fraud is due to clerical error. The practice is already a federal felony that triggers up to five years in prison, so the possible “payoff” of wrongfully casting one vote is just not worth the risk for most people.

In response to the coronavirus, numerous states that would otherwise require an excuse to vote by mail have expanded eligibility to include fear of COVID-19 infection. But lawsuits pending across the country could tie up these reforms through this election cycle. Moreover, mail-in ballots must be ordered, printed and mailed for countless elections in a single state and, under federal law, in multiple languages. States must provide secure drop-off locations and/or prepaid postage to maximize voter access. Poll workers need to be trained on scanning equipment, signature verification and other practices unique to mail-in voting and the public needs to be timely educated about how to vote by mail. 

All of this takes time — and money, which states are increasingly in shortage of due to drops in tax revenues and other urgencies caused by the coronavirus. Under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Republican Senate has refused to take up the House of Representatives’ latest bailout measure for the states. Last but not least, the U.S. Postal Service is notoriously unreliable and running out of money, with Trump pledging to veto any legislation aimed at keeping it going past September. 

Even if you apply for and receive a ballot in time, there is no guarantee that it will be timely received and counted.

As a back-up plan, you should plan to vote in-person anyway — preferably early, if your state offers that option — and always demand a “provisional ballot” if you are turned away at the polls. (Some states require you to follow-up with additional information in order to make provisional ballots count; check the law of your state.)

There is no single election system in the United States — it’s a patchwork of thousands of mini-systems, each with different protocols, lines of authority, staff, timelines, funding streams and inevitable problems. Congress could do more to make voting rights more uniformly protected and less contingent on zip codes, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. 

Recent primary elections in places like Georgia and Wisconsin are previews of what will occur to some degree in November, as well — long lines, broken machines, inadequately trained poll workers and frustrated voters. Not to mention likely sickness and death; dozens contracted COVID-19 by braving the polls in Wisconsin — after the U.S. Supreme Court shamefully slapped down the governor’s attempts to make voting safer amidst the pandemic.

Bottom line: mistakes — and voter disenfranchisement — will undoubtedly occur in November. It’s true that some percentage of voter disenfranchisement has nefarious roots — unlike voter fraud, voter suppression efforts are a serious malignancy in the U.S. electoral system. But many eligible voters will simply fall through the cracks in November due to lack of funding, incompetence, confusion or even disgust over the process. 

Which is all to say that, in order to get America back on track with leadership that cares about the Constitution, the rule of law, accountability to the people and the health and welfare of every American, the margins of victory in the fall — whomever they favor — must be substantial. Voter turnout must produce a tsunami, not a trickle, of civic engagement. Which requires unprecedented voter registration now. 

So spread the word. It’s the only way to restore the system of American government to a modicum of national and international legitimacy.

Kimberly Wehle is a visiting professor of Law at American University’s Washington College of Law, and author of the books “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” and “What you need to know about voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter @kimwehle.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 election Democracy mail-in ballots mail-in voting Mitch McConnell Russian interference US elections Vladimir Putin voter participation Voter registration voters Voting William Barr

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