For Latino voters, vote by mail is not enough
Blanca “Doña Nelly” Torres lives in an assisted living senior residence in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Like many of her retired neighbors, she votes by mail. Because she was born and educated in Puerto Rico, Spanish is her dominant language, but she’s able to vote with the assistance of her daughter, Lourdes.
Without Lourdes’ assistance, it is unlikely that Doña Nelly would be able to vote — not only because of the language barrier, but also because at 87, her vision isn’t what it used to be. Lourdes was able to help her vote during the primaries, but that was before her residence stopped allowing visitors due to the threat of COVID-19. If the virus continues to limit gatherings into the November elections, Doña Nelly fears she — along with millions of other Latino voters facing similar limitations — may not be able to fully complete and cast her general election ballot.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, home to a large and growing Puerto Rican community, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a last-minute attempt by Gov. Tony Evers (D) to postpone the state’s presidential primary amid concerns over COVID-19. The Court rationalized, in part, that changing the election date one day prior to the election would confuse voters and adversely impact voters and voter turnout. Justice Ginsberg, in her dissenting opinion, rightly noted “Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own.”
So on April 13, our nation was witness to eerie photos of voters risking their health and their lives to go to the polls, with only 5 out of 189 polling places open in Milwaukee. Although a over 1.3 million absentee ballots had been requested, more than 235,000 (18 percent) were not returned in time to be counted, a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to block the extension of the deadline for absentee ballots.
With the new social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, many states are enacting or considering changes to their voting laws in order to expand access during this uncertain time. Voting by mail (absentee ballot) is becoming a popular, proposed solution in the age of COVID-19, but policies like vote by mail are not silver bullets for more complex problems experienced by traditionally disenfranchised populations. Many Americans who don’t have a traditional permanent address or who have recently moved won’t be reached by simply mailing an absentee ballot application to each person on the rolls. Any attempt to transition to voting by mail would have to be paired with aggressive community-based outreach.
With nearly 32 million Latinos eligible to vote in the upcoming election we must keep in mind that Latino voter ballots are often disproportionately challenged in jurisdictions that require exact name matching or strict documentary proof of citizenship and these problems can be exacerbated by voting by mail. Protections are needed to avoid discriminatory voter challenges and purging, and to ensure that every eligible voter’s vote is counted, including newly-naturalized citizens and millions of young, first-time voters.
Millions of voters like Doña Nelly who require oral assistance in Spanish — as is their right under federal law — will not be included in this election unless officials are careful to provide remote voting options. As all sectors of the nation adapt by delivering essential services in a safe and accessible manner, election officials should also expand their outreach and assistance through phone calls, social media and in-community visits, along with bilingual ballots, paid return postage and proper safety measures. When it is safe, polls should be open and there should be expanded early voting opportunities.
Congress, as well as state and local election officials, have the power to make the 2020 election accessible to all. They should use their power to do just that, because while COVID-19 has posed challenges, evidence points to a high level of interest in voting among Latinos and the stakes for the community in this election could not be higher.
Regardless of individual political ideologies, we should all support policies that guarantee every American their fundamental right to vote, even during COVID-19. In preparation for the pandemic’s impact on voters’ health and our democracy, all states should allow for a form of absentee or mail-in ballot, with additional measures to ensure adequate participation in the electoral process, without endangering public health and without disenfranchising eligible voters.
If states are equally serious about ensuring an inclusive democracy that represents all of us as they are about preventing the spread of COVID-19, which they should be, then planning for the election cannot wait until the last minute. The time for action is now and states should take proactive steps well in advance of Election Day.
Irene Oria is president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. Katherine Culliton-González serves as chair of the organization’s Civil Rights Section and Jorge Luis Vasquez, Jr. serves as chair of the Voting Rights Section.