Voter suppression could cost Democrats the election — here's what they should do

Voter suppression could cost Democrats the election — here's what they should do
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The coronavirus pandemic has upended every facet of American society and left many of us scrambling to adjust to “new normals” in the ways that we interact, work and live. Unfortunately, not enough attention has been given to how the pandemic changes the way we vote. While the foreseeable future remains largely uncertain, there is one certainty that remains — Nov. 3, 2020 will be election day for all 50 states in America. 

Although it is imperative to alleviate the medical and economic pressures caused by this pandemic, equal attention must be paid to safely and securely administer what is arguably one of the most consequential elections of our lifetimes. Especially, we must center the underserved communities that have been impacted by COVID-19 the hardest and face the most structural barriers to voting. 

Current attempts to flatten the COVID-19 infection curve are starting to slow the rate of new cases and deaths per day, but the threat of a second wave of infections in the fall has many Americans worried about the safety of voting in the general election. In fact, the majority of Americans believe the pandemic will disrupt voting in November and want safer alternatives to cast their vote. Also, just as the economic and medical impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected young, urban and diverse communities — the base of the Democratic coalition — disruption to voting in November threatens to disenfranchise the exact same communities. 

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With millions of college students displaced from their primary residence, the coronavirus is making many young people unsure of how they will vote in November. Additionally, over half of black voters have never voted by mail. Confusion and misunderstanding around the voting process during this pandemic threaten to suppress turnout among these critical voting blocs. These voters are already cynical towards voting by mail, as younger, minority voters face twice the absentee ballot rejection rate as older, white voters and are more likely to vote on Election Day. 

The 2020 primary election has already revealed just how disproportionately COVID-19 voting would impact the electorate. In Wisconsin, the Republican legislature blocked an order from Gov. Tony Evers (D) that would have delayed the election to pursue safer alternatives for voting. The result: thousands of poll workers refuse to participate, 6+ hour lines to vote and hundreds of ballots not delivered on time. In Milwaukee County, home to 600,000 people including 70 percent of the state’s African American population, polling locations were reduced from 180 in 2016 to only 5 in 2020 with a 41 percent drop in turnout. 

Imagine scaling this scenario nationally with over 100 million Americans attempting to cast a vote on the same day — mass disenfranchisement the likes of which we have not seen since the Civil Rights Movement.   

Republicans around the nation have already begun pursuing more ways to limit access to voting during this pandemic to improve their political odds. Kentucky just passed a new photo-ID law requiring voters to show a valid photo-ID to vote despite the state offices that issue such IDs being indefinitely closed. Trump recently selected a high-ranking RNC fundraiser with no relevant experience to be the Postmaster general for USPS at a time when vote by mail is expected to rise. Moreover, the Republican National Committee has been suing across the country in key swing states including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to oppose expanding vote access. 

While securing our democracy and ensuring a safe election during this pandemic should be a priority of every elected official in America, it is particularly incumbent upon Democrats to expand access to voting during this crisis for multiple reasons: 

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First, the Democratic coalition will be the most impacted by COVID-19 disenfranchisement efforts like longer lines, fewer locations and a confusing process. Polling reveals these key Democratic demographics — including black, hispanic and young voters — express the highest support (79-80 percent) for vote by mail options. 

Second, Republican politicians have already demonstrated a willingness to exploit this crisis to limit access to voting in the most vulnerable communities for their own personal gain. 

Third, Republican voters are likely going to vote either way. With a 30 point enthusiasm gap between Biden voters and Trump voters — concentrated in rural areas that are least likely to be impacted by social distancing requirements and most likely to be outright COVID-19 deniers — Republican voters are unlikely to be dissuaded from voting in a pandemic. 

Unfortunately, our electoral system is a patchwork of state and local processes that is subject to very little federal oversight so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, Democrats must pursue a myriad of options, leverage their negotiating power in Congress and exhaust their influence in state and local governments to safeguard the upcoming election during a pandemic. 

Fair Fight 2020 and other voter protection organizations have detailed a list of reforms that would increase access to voting in the pandemic including: 

Expand online registration — offer same-day registration and prepare to process paper registrations. 

Expand early voting in person — apply CDC guidelines to locations and recruit more poll workers. 

Expand vote-by-mail and make mail ballots available without explanation. This also includes prepaid postage on applications and ballots, accepting ballots postmarked on election day and notifying voters of signature mismatch, giving them a chance to rectify.

While vote by mail has become a favorite of progressive activists and enjoys broad bipartisan support, if done in isolation and without other considerations could perpetuate the electoral barriers among the most vulnerable voters. 

Nov. 3, 2020 will truly test the fortitude of our democracy. With recent polls between Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE and Joe BidenJoe BidenMomentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day Trump expects to nominate woman to replace Ginsburg next week Video of Lindsey Graham arguing against nominating a Supreme Court justice in an election year goes viral MORE often tied and within the margin of error, the next leader of the free world is a political toss-up that will likely be decided by just as close of a margin.

But if millions of people are unable to vote, disrupted from voting, or prevented from voting as a result of COVID-19, then it will be very hard for the losing side to accept the outcome of the election. That is the existential threat to our democracy that is unavoidably approaching, and it could be as great as the threat COVID faces to the health or economy of America. 

Terrance Woodbury is a partner at HIT Strategies where his research focuses on people of color and millennials who have become the driving force of rapidly evolving consumer and electoral trends in both the United States and abroad. Terrance conducts polling and focus groups for candidates in local, state, national and international elections and for innovative companies such as Uber and Google. You can follow him @t_woodbury1. Tanvi Reddy is a research fellow at HIT Strategies focusing on understanding the motivations of the emerging electorate — young people and minorities – and the pivotal role they will play in the 2020 election cycle. You can follow him @TanviReddy_ @hitstrat.