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We must bolster in-person voting too

We must bolster in-person voting too
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Getting more people to cast mail ballots is a clear imperative for safe and secure voting this November, and there is a heroic logistical operation underway as election officials rush to serve this need. Even so, another challenge remains: how to make in-person voting available and safe for those who need it.

In the vast majority of states, action is needed to maintain, and hopefully expand, the number of in-person voting locations. New, accessible locations for voting will be needed nationwide, and according to a model developed out of our respective institutions, MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab and Democracy Works, more than 460,000 new workers may be needed nationwide to keep all polls open this year.

In a year when voters are shifting rapidly to mail voting, this might feel counterintuitive. Why the need to expand the number of in-person polling places? Even with exponential growth in mail voting, more than half the electorate will likely vote in person this year. This includes many voters with disabilities, those who decide to vote at the last minute and voters whose requested mail ballot didn’t arrive.

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A perfect storm of challenges threatens their access to healthy voting. Social distancing reduces the capacity of existing polling places. Health concerns will make many buildings unavailable as voting sites. Historic turnout will increase stress at all levels of the election system. And the most looming challenge will be a longstanding decline in poll workers.

In the Wisconsin primary this year, some localities saw up to 85 percent of their workforce fail to show up. Statewide, the result was a last-minute shuttering of 14 percent of polling places as they were consolidated, including the closing of 97 percent of polling places in Milwaukee. Research conducted by two affiliates of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab show that polling places in communities of color were more likely to be closed.

According to statistics reported by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, there were nearly one million poll workers in the 2016 election. This is half the number of employees as Walmart, the nation’s largest civilian employer. Over half of these poll workers were over 60 years old; a quarter were over 70. This is the core demographic of those most at risk from the COVID-19 virus. No wonder local election officials are having a hard time maintaining their front-line workforce. 

There is a pressing need for voter engagement groups and employers to partner with election officials to help recruit workers and expand the number of polling sites. Businesses can step in by providing paid time off for employees who volunteer as election workers and by offering underused retail and office space as polling places.

The Civic Alliance – a coalition of companies committed to safe and secure elections – has announced an Election Day of Service initiative that offers free resources and campaign materials to any business that wants help getting started. States and localities can help maintain use of public schools as polling sites by declaring November 3 a school holiday (Illinois has already done this) and easing restrictions that limit workers to serve only in the precinct where they live. 

Making mail voting more available while protecting in-person voting is an undertaking this nation has never seen before. Election administrators should not have to face this challenge alone. All of civil society must play a role, from PTAs to religious groups, protestors to corporations. Together, we can make the running of elections an example of American self-governance at its best, truly of the people. 

Charles Stewart is founder of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. Seth Flaxman is co-founder and CEO of Democracy Works, which advocates for voter participation across the nation.