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Americans will vote for their lives

Americans will vote for their lives
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The right to vote is precisely what makes our government a democracy by the people and for people. So many have sacrificed plenty for the right to vote. While bipartisan efforts expanded the right to vote in our history, the current rancor and sharp divides in our society have led some in power to believe their road to victory includes the systemic disenfranchisement of certain groups of voters. Unfortunately, the coronavirus can be used as a ruse through which they could seek to expand that disenfranchisement.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, both in the economy and overall infections of the coronavirus. Now is the time for more democracy and more voices from impacted communities. Under normal circumstances, the promise of democracy in the United States is access to participation in elections. We must not let that commitment be undermined by poor election administration that can lead to low turnout.

Government decisions have immediate life and death consequences, so the will of the people must be heard. The Heroes Act allocated more than $3 billion toward election security assistance, setting an appropriate floor that the Senate needs to meet or exceed. Our patchwork election system is outdated at best, but in the midst of a pandemic, it has become unsafe.

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No American should have to choose between protecting their safety and exercising their right to vote. The explicit risks that the coronavirus poses to our democracy include low registration, dismal turnout, administration errors, too few polling workers, and increased risk of infection as a result of unprepared election sites. Fortunately, these risks are known and they can be managed with smart planning and immediate legislative actions.

First, Congress must expand access through automatic voter registration. For Americans who are not covered by automatic registration since those traditional registration routes are narrowed, Congress needs to give them more time and opportunities to register with online voter registration and same day registration. Most states already allow their residents to register to vote online, while North Dakota requires no registration at all, but there are still several states that continue to refuse this common sense reform.

Through same day registration, eligible voters are able to join the rolls or correct their records on the day they cast a ballot. It is critical in addition to online registration, as some voters may not have internet access. They include low income voters, who are disproportionately those of color, or Native American communities, which have limited broadband access on tribal lands. While several states allow people to register and vote on the same day, this option is still not possible for voters in a majority of states.

Second, Americans want mail voting. For this to be truly universal and not perpetuate existing divides in society, voters should receive stamped and addressed envelopes far in advance of the election. They also must not be required to break quarantine to photocopy identification or obtain witness signatures. Congress needs to act quickly to ensure the Postal Service has the necessary resources to fulfill its key purposes, along with the freedom to continue serving the public in an efficient manner as it has for decades.

Finally, we must resist the temptation to limit in person voting because of the pandemic. Mail voting elections without an option of in person voting will disenfranchise many voters, particularly black and brown voters who face higher barriers to mail voting. We have also seen women, particularly women of color, express their concerns at higher rates than other groups that their votes will not be counted as intended. Congress has to address this as women today constitute the majority of voters across the country.

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Congress also should ensure in person voting is safe with trained polling workers, sufficient numbers of polling places, generous early voting, and protective equipment. Some of our organizations have now been helping recruit additional polling workers, given higher risks of the coronavirus to the elderly. Congress should incentivize greater participation by offering hazard pay and protective equipment. In recent years, some legislatures have disproportionately closed polling places for communities of color.

There must be increased polling opportunities in these areas to minimize the crowding in the places that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus. Early voting is decisive for black and brown voters, who are more likely to work in jobs without flexibility or paid sick leave. Americans are watching how seriously Congress takes the health of our democracy and the safety of its constituents. By taking action, our leaders can make sure we come together in every election between now and November to prove that the government for the people prevails, even amid an unprecedented crisis.

Derrick Johnson is president of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Maria Theresa Kumar is president of Voto Latino. Randi Weingarten is the president for the American Federation of Teachers, and Rachel Carmona is the chief operating officer with the March for Women.