Worst election fears averted, but Americans were still failed in real ways

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In Georgia, voters have begun casting their ballots in what will most likely be the last federal election of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re relying on systems and protocols developed only in the past six months to keep voting safe and secure during one of the worst public health calamities of our time.

We should be proud of all we collectively did to bolster the 2020 elections. Americans turned out in record-breaking numbers, with 66 percent of eligible voters participating compared to 60 percent in 2016. Our election systems’ resiliency is due to advocates, community leaders, and other experts working with voters, election officials, politicians, and the private sector to make whatever changes we could as quickly as possible. We boosted poll worker recruitment, educated voters, and stood in lines to vote. And we expanded many voters’ options for casting their ballots by increasing the availability of voting by mail.

Together we held off the worst-feared catastrophes. But we should not be kidding ourselves. The nation failed American voters during the 2020 elections on a number of fronts.

Increased voter intimidation. While voter intimidation is illegal, there were numerous credible reports that intimidation occurred — at higher numbers than I have seen in past years. The reports came from all over the map, including in multiple counties in Florida, in Georgia, New York, and Pennsylvania. The intimidation took many forms, from screaming at voters to walking around polling stations with guns to revving truck engines and driving close to voters’ cars, “like playing chicken.

Underprepared primaries. Long lines in the primaries were reported in many states, and election officials were generally unprepared for the surge in mail voting brought about by the pandemic. As an example, Wisconsin only had five polling places open in Milwaukee, and 9,000 requested absentee ballots were never sent while an additional 23,000 ballots were rejected.

Violent threats against elections officials. Our already under-resourced election officials have faced an alarming new challenge this year: “threats or acute security risks to election workers” in many states including Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia. This is unconscionable, and may deter potential future administrators from serving.

Congressional inaction. The U.S. Congress could have required that states make certain changes to their voting systems and granted them the estimated $4 billion needed to properly ensure elections were safe and secure. Instead, Congress provided only $400 million and no such mandate. This proved to be a severe strain on basic election functions that officials and the private sector had to scramble to resolve. Budget shortages mean increased risk of longer lines, fewer election workers, faulty communication with voters, insufficient stocking of ballots, and inadequate levels of PPE.

Frivolous lawsuits. Since election day over 50 lawsuits whose claims are not backed up by evidence and whose legal arguments are clearly invalid have been filed in every swing state that went blue. The lawsuits, devoid of actual heft, amount to another tool for disgruntled political hacks to anger, divide and discourage voters.

Misinformation and disinformation. Voters across the country were the targets of online and phone-based disinformation campaigns. For example, voters of color in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and New York were targeted in robocalls conveying false information designed to scare people away from voting. Unlike similar campaigns in past years, this time there was a steady stream of misinformation from the White House.

Racially discriminatory voter suppression. This election season, nonwhite voters’ political participation was under attack — from a 2019 Florida law conditioning voting rights restoration on payment of a wide range of fees and fines imposed by the criminal justice system, to extreme polling place closures in Milwaukee depressing African American turnout.

In 2020, our democracy survived some enormous threats, but the work of ensuring free, fair, secure, and accessible elections for all voters is far from complete.

We need to make the necessary changes at the national, state, and local level to give every eligible voter the ability to be heard. Let’s start by pressuring Congress to approve pro-voter reforms. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and H.R. 1 (the For the People Act) should be at the top of the list. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would safeguard Americans against racial discrimination in voting laws by restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, which was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. The For the People Act’s comprehensive package of voting reforms would revitalize American democracy, making voting easier and more accessible, particularly for Black and Brown voters being shut out by current policies, and strengthen protections against disinformation and voter intimidation.

We need to learn from where our democracy came up short this year — especially for communities of color — and do even better next time.

Myrna Pérez is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and leader of the Center’s Voting Rights and Elections project.

Tags Absentee ballot disinformation campaign election lawsuits election misinformation election official threats Elections John Lewis Postal voting robocalls Voter suppression Voting

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