Protecting Voting From COVID-19: Picking a President During a Pandemic (Part 2)

This is the second in a two-part series on protecting voting from COVID-19. Read Part 1 here.

In a normal year, Labor Day is the unofficial start of the presidential campaign season. In a normal year, kids are back in school. Voters are being bombarded with political ads on TV and in their social media feeds, while in battleground states, candidates hold rallies and town hall meetings.

But 2020, needless to say, is not a normal year.

From now until Election Day, we will examine how the ongoing battle over voting rights will have an impact on the country’s ability to hold fair elections during a pandemic, as well as on the difference women will make as voters and candidates.

More than any other previous election: Equality is on the ballot.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Ms.

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In the summer and fall of 2020, when social unrest is being calibrated by social distancing, Myrna Pérez—director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program—believes a robust voter education and registration effort could go a long way toward empowering people who feel galvanized by America’s latest social justice reckoning.

“The right to vote is the way we peacefully resolve our political issues,” Perez notes. “It’s the way we set the direction and agenda for the country and it’s the way in which we come together and leverage the expertise and experience and talents of all of us—into a result.”

But Marian Lewin, vice president of the board of directors for the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, says her organization and other voting rights advocacy groups in North Carolina are having a harder time this year conducting outreach and education activities.

“We’re really worried about voter registration because libraries are closed. Nobody’s going to government offices, because that’s another place where people register to vote. Schools are closed—so all those [high school] seniors who [are used to] registering to vote in schools, they’re not there. Reaching all the people that need to register to vote is a real challenge.”

Though young voters may not have the same social distancing concerns that could erode the Election Day turnout among older citizens, they’re not immune to voting obstacles caused by the pandemic. Students who are registered to vote on campuses shuttered due to COVID-19 may need to obtain absentee ballots or vote early. If their schools are far away from their hometowns, they may be concerned about whether those mail-in votes will actually reach their intended destinations.

Protecting Voting From COVID-19: Picking a President During a Pandemic (Part 2)
Sgt. Monica Miggins, a soldier with the 1158th Transportation Company out of Beloit, Wis., sanitizes voters’ hands before entering a polling place in Fitchburg, Wis., April 7, 2020. (Spc. Emma Anderson / Wisconsin National Guard)

Yet another key concern for Election Day 2020 is a shortage of poll workers. In the last presidential election, there were 917,694 poll workers, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and more than half of those whose age data was reported were 61 or older— the demographic most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“We’re advocating for members [of the League of Women Voters] to reach out to the younger members of their family to be poll watchers and poll workers,” says Delores Johnson Hurt, president of the organization’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg chapter in North Carolina.

In 2020, the pandemic is absolutely hampering poll worker recruitment efforts around the country. In late July, with 100 or so days to go until Election Day, Maryland, for instance, reported a shortage of 13,970 election judges. That state—and many others—may have to consolidate voting locations as a result.

Protecting Voting From COVID-19: Picking a President During a Pandemic (Part 2)

Even before the pandemic, the shrinking number of polling places was impeding voter access. The Leadership Conference Education Fund found that 1,688 polling places closed between 2012 and 2018, almost double the number it had identified in its 2016 report.

In 2020, traditional polling locations, such as retirement homes and community centers, may not be available or able to accommodate social distancing— leaving local elections officials scrambling to find large, centrally located voting sites.

Officials in Mecklenburg County, N.C., have acknowledged COVID-19 concerns by designating three major sports and entertainment venues—the Spectrum Center, Panthers Stadium and Bojangles’ Coliseum—as socially distanced polling sites.

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Officials say they’re lacking one additional necessity: funding to successfully hold an election during a pandemic. State and local elections officials appealed to Congress to provide these funds, which the Brennan Center estimated to be $4 billion for expenses such as technology improvements, ballot printing and mailing, and PPE for poll workers. The House allocated these funds in May, but the Senate has failed to take up the legislation.

As the U.S. awaits the outcome of Decision 2020, one thing is certain: The lessons yielded from an election cycle during a pandemic are urgent—and, Pérez says, could be costly if they are ignored.

“Our elections need to be done in a way that recognizes that people have different risk profiles and people have different risk tolerances,” she says. “When we are depriving someone of the right to vote, we are not only losing their experience, we are [undermining] our own democracy and making people feel less invested in our institutions and less confident in the outcomes.”

For those who are eager to learn from history, there’s a poignant message from the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, whose July 17 death recalled memories of young men and women from all walks of life who risked danger and even death to widen voting access during the civil rights movement.

In his last opinion column for The New York Times, published posthumously on the day of his funeral, Lewis admonished:

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

Audrey Gibbs and Violet Rawlings assisted with the research for this article.

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Rachel Jones is a freelance writer and development media consultant based in Washington, D.C.