This is an election year like none other.
COVID-19 is closing polling locations, keeping seasoned poll workers at home, and endangering voters who stand in increasingly long lines to exercise their rights.
The president continues to refuse to agree to a peaceful transfer of power and consistently disseminates misinformation surrounding the election and the pandemic—yet remains largely unchecked by his party.
In short, it’s easy to feel hopeless, frustrated or worried about the future of U.S. democracy. However, channeling that frustration and fear is crucial to combatting voter suppression and ensuring American democracy can continue.
Last month, a Ms. event helped attendees do just that.
Following a screening of Capturing the Flag—a documentary on the protection of voter rights—hosted by Ms. and its partners, voter protection worker Laverne Berry led a discussion on overcoming voter suppression in 2020. Panelists included Sylvia Albert, Common Cause’s director of voting and elections; Alex Harris, executive director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation; and Courtney Cardin, director of partnerships and engagement for Power the Polls.
Together, Berry, Albert, Harris and Cardin showed how to channel that election-related stress through civic engagement. They encouraged listeners to:
- Make a voting plan, including taking advantage of available resources, like absentee and early voting. Encourage friends and family to do the same!
- Become a poll worker to ensure that others are aware of their rights as voters, and are able to cast ballots safely and efficiently.
- Join an election protection team. Take action from home or in-person!
Note: the interview below has been edited for clarity.
Laverne Berry: Courtney, can we talk a little bit about what you’re doing and why it’s so important to recruit the next generation of poll workers?
Courtney Cardin: Absolutely. Power the Polls is a nonpartisan organization working to recruit the next generation of poll workers. There is a nationwide poll worker shortage happening right now given the current pandemic. Election administration officials across the country rely on seasoned poll workers to show up cycle after cycle to do your voter protection work, but a vast majority are over the age of 60, and therefore, at higher risk of complications from the current pandemic, so many of them don’t feel safe this year.
Power the Polls has actually just passed our 500,000 recruit mark today, but we still have a long way to go because there are still some places that need poll workers. Many states and many counties require you to be a resident of that county to sign up to work the polls in that jurisdiction, so we are still recruiting to make sure that everyone who wants to can cast a ballot in person in November. We’re working with wonderful partners including the NBA, which has graciously opened up their arenas to be polling locations where we can do in-person voting with safe social distancing and additional precautions.
Berry: Sylvia, we have a number of questions about how to work in a nonpartisan way to do important civic work. Can you talk to me a little bit about what Common Cause does?
Sylvia Albert: Sure! Common Cause is part of a coalition of over 100 organizations nationwide, and the goals of these organizations are to make sure that every voter who is eligible can cast a ballot. So you’re seeing a lot of changes in current laws to enable that, and a big part of our work is identifying and stopping all of the misinformation that’s out there and providing accurate voting information.
And the good news is that we have lots of different opportunities for our nonpartisan warriors to help out. Our program has mostly been around field poll monitoring. Those are the people that you see at polling locations who can help you if you have any problems, give you advice or let you know what the laws are in your state. Due to the pandemic, we also have roving poll monitors—they drive or bike from polling place to polling place, and they try to figure out if there seems to be a problem and report it back to the activists and lawyers who can help.
We also have a number of online opportunities. So if you’re a lawyer, a law student, or a paralegal, the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline is a national nonpartisan hotline that answers voters’ questions and helps them in everything that they need. That hotline is actually in 12 to 14 languages, depending on the year, so if you also are fluent in Arabic, English, or any Asian languages, we would also love to have you.
We have volunteers who are on social media monitoring the misinformation, when there’s so much craziness going on and people don’t know what is real. And finally, we also have voter contact, if you really like texting or calling voters and letting them know that this is the last week to register in your state.
Berry: Now, I wanted to ask you a particular question that has come up in our chat: What’s wrong with voter ID laws? Without voter IDs, don’t we just run the risk of people voting that shouldn’t be voting?
Albert: That’s a great question, and I think it highlights some misconceptions about voting. People seem to think that voting is very easily hacked or that there aren’t things in place to ensure that the person who is casting that ballot is actually that person. We have lots of provisions in place to protect that, and voter ID laws don’t actually stop anything bad from happening, but it does make voting inaccessible to people who don’t have those IDs—that tends to be low-income folks, Black and Brown voters, and people with disabilities. These are people who are already underrepresented in our democracy, and we want to do everything we can to make sure that they can participate in it.
Berry: How is it that people are going to make a plan to be able to vote this year, because what may have been easy in other years is harder this year, and for the people that it was already hard for, it may be even harder still?
Alexandra “Alex” Harris: You’re exactly right, everything has changed. You cannot rely on what you did last year or even in the primaries. You need to have a clear plan, you need to call your local clerk and get a sense of when they’re going to send your ballot if you’re expecting one, and keep checking in if you haven’t received it. If you’re on a college campus and you plan to vote in person, expect that that might change, especially if there’s some kind of outbreak of COVID on your campus.
The other piece is, if you’re going to vote in person, prepare to be there all day. Encourage your job or your school to close for the day, and expect that you’re going to experience suppressive tactics. I think the most important thing that you can factor when you’re making your voting plan is to bring a ton of friends, and that’s true if you’re going in person or if you’re going to vote by mail—make sure that everyone that you know has a plan.
Berry: Courtney, we know that poll workers have typically been older people. How do we make being a poll worker sexy enough for a younger generation?
Cardin: That is a great question, and we are certainly trying to make poll working sexy. We are working with a number of influential athletes and celebrities who have come onboard because they think it’s really imperative for the next generation to get involved—not just as voters, but as the frontlines of democracy and as the poll workers themselves.
It’s been really not a heavy lift—the next generation is eager and excited to do something, and frankly, after many, many months of being stuck at home, when you tell young people that they have a validated chance to get out of the house and get paid, that’s a message that’s riding with a lot of people right now.
Berry: Great. So, what kinds of things are happening in places where it might be harder for people to vote because of location, like Native Americans that don’t have as many polling places?
Albert: As I was saying, there are certain populations that have always been underrepresented in our democracy, and that has a lot to do with access: When North Dakota passed a law a couple years ago saying that you had to have a voter ID with a physical address on it, but no homes in the reservations had a technical address, that was suppressive.
Voters of certain communities shouldn’t have to jump through hoops in order to make their voices heard. Voters in tribal communities in Arizona are asking for a polling location on tribal land, and the local election administrator is saying no. They shouldn’t have to beg; I think COVID-19 is really pointing out how our system only fits a small swath of the population.
Berry: Are any of you telling voters to drop off their ballots in person because they’re concerned either about the mail or about freestanding dropbox places?
Harris: I do think that this is something that we need to be concerned about in terms of what’s going to happen with the whole vote-by-mail issue, and I’m not discouraging people to vote by mail, but I am encouraging people to vote in person and vote early. If you are the kind of person who puts on your PPE and goes to Whole Foods to get fruit, then take the same risks and vote in person and make sure that you’re counted. And if people are going to vote by mail, then they should do it early, and they need to make sure that they’re keeping track of what happened with their ballot.
Berry: And what do we say to people in places like California, who would like to help but they don’t have things that are going on right in their state?
Albert: There’s a lot of online activism that you can be doing, and that can be informing the voters of those states of their options and how to go about getting their ballots and how to properly fill them out.
Harris: You can also work on a hotline or do ballot curing for voters across the country right now. We are doing a mass voter verification project where lawyers, students, and concerned citizens are just dialing in, and we’re checking information from clerks against the voter registries.
In Wisconsin, 23,000 people had their ballots thrown out in the last primary, and the margin of victory in Wisconsin in 2016 was 22,000 votes, so this is a big deal. This is a suppressive tactic that is really harming our outcomes, and this idea of democracy is being challenged greatly.
Cardin: It’s also not just a presidential election that’s on the ballot this year. So that was a close margin in the presidential election in Wisconsin, but down ballot races are often decided by much smaller margins. That’s why we’re encouraging people to work as poll workers in their jurisdictions—not only are you helping your community vote, you’re helping your community select the representative that’s going to decide when your garbage gets picked up, and what the zoning regulations are. Voting is not just about who sits in the oval office; voting is about real impacts on your day-to-day life.
Berry: Alex, can you explain what a provisional ballot is, why it’s important, and what has to be done around that?
Harris: Absolutely. When I went to go vote for the first time in 2000, they told me that I wasn’t properly registered, and I remember feeling devastated. It was the most un-American I’d ever felt—the most invisible and left out of the process that I’d ever felt—which to me is saying a lot as a Black woman. And my mom said that night, “While you’re angry, write a letter to the Secretary of State, and tell her what happened.”
I had gathered up a huge notebook full of people who had been denied the right to vote that day. And she came back to me and asked me to work for her, and we worked very hard to usher in the Provisional Vote Bill for Georgia. What that means is when you go to vote, you can speak to the poll manager and demand the right to vote provisionally.
Voting provisionally allows you to have your voice counted no matter if you’re on the books or not. Then after the fact, they check you against the register, and they see that you’re actually properly on the books. If you are, then your vote is supposed to count.
Berry: I just want to quickly go around and see if there’s any last things that you want to say to the people that are watching us.
Harris: I know a lot of people are very anxious, and feeling very stressed out, and very worried, and my philosophy is just take it day by day, do what you can, don’t sit back, don’t become disillusioned, and lean in. No matter what happens, when you get to the polls, don’t let anybody turn you around, don’t let a line discourage you, don’t let a person tell you that you can’t vote. Demand to vote provisionally and stay there. No matter what, fight for your right.
Albert: You are engaged and informed, but a lot of people out there aren’t, and there’s a lot of wrong information that’s floating around. So what you can do is be a source for the right information. Go to trusted sources of information like lots of our organizations: Power the Polls, Andrew Goodman, Common Cause, go to Rock the Boat, go to electionprotection.com. You can be the person in your community that says, “I have that info right here, here’s how you’re going to vote.”
Cardin: Work the polls to make sure other people can vote, and bring three friends along. If you do decide to vote by mail, follow the process to a T, and don’t give any reason for your ballot to be challenged and thrown out. Whatever you care about—the economy, climate, immigration, anything—make sure you’re registered to vote so that ultimately your voice is heard, and earn yourself the right to complain for the next four years.
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