Last Tuesday, just hours after Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order to push back the state’s primary and postpone its absentee ballot deadline, the state Supreme Court overruled him, ordering the primary to proceed as scheduled, despite the statewide coronavirus stay-at-home mandate.
Those problems were created by design – and not just in Wisconsin, either. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Republican lawmakers in states across the country are scrambling to block our access to the polls– a move that, like so many voter suppression tactics, was designed to disenfranchise Black, Latinx, Native American and low-income voters. “It’s a very clear power grab by Republican lawmakers and conservative courts,” said Marcelia Nicholson, who serves on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, our communities are also disproportionately shouldering the burden, with alarmingly high rates of infection, mortality, job layoffs and more. We can’t afford to let the GOP use this pandemic to further block our access to the ballot box. Now more than ever, we need to make sure that during this crisis, every registered voter has safe, fair and equitable access to the ballot box.
That means making multiple adjustments at every level in the process to accommodate as many voters as possible, beginning with expanded voter registration. Online voter registration, which some states already have in place, is one simple and convenient way to expand our access to the ballot without risking our health to do it. North Carolina recently adopted online voter registration for precisely that reason – and states without similar measures in place can’t afford to wait any longer to take action.
And because we don’t know how long this pandemic will require us to stay home, or how local governments might be affected by office closures or service shutdowns, our leaders should also lift existing voter registration deadlines to give us enough time to register. Removing those deadlines to include same-day voter registration would ensure that the virus and its aftereffects don’t jeopardize our chance to register.
Getting folks registered is just half the battle, though: we need to make sure that these voters can safely cast their ballots. Every registered voter deserves a chance to safely and conveniently cast their ballot, and for most Americans, offering a free mail-in ballot to all registered voters is the simplest way to make that happen.
Mail-in voting is already the only option for many immunocompromised people and people with disabilities or illnesses. But 17 states impose different requirements upon their voters to meet the conditions to receive a mail-in ballot. It’s time not just to expand vote-by-mail to every registered voter in every state, it’s time to remove those barriers, which – you guessed it – serve to exclude us from participating in our elections. Past elections have already made the impact of those barriers clear – and we can’t let Republicans jeopardize our health and safety to try to do it again.
Of course, vote-by-mail isn’t a universal solution for all voters, particularly for Native Americans living on tribal lands, people experiencing homelessness and others without access to the postal service. We need to take extra precautions to ensure that anyone who needs to vote in person is not disenfranchised by polling place closures. That means extending early voting to avoid the kinds of lines we saw in Wisconsin, making sure that polling places are held in low-risk, and regularly sanitized facilities, ensuring social distancing between poll workers, providing adequate space between voting booths and using disposable pens.
We can expect Republicans to continue to challenge these proposed modifications with long-debunked claims about voter fraud or the threat to the security or integrity of our elections. After all, as Donald Trump said with candor recently, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if voting were as accessible as it should be.
But the truth is that neither the health of the public nor that of our elections is a partisan issue. These safety measures are simply that: means to ensure that even amid this pandemic, all elections are fair, secure and fully accessible.
Our democracy was founded upon the premise that the power resides with the people. Blocking our right to exercise that power, especially during a global pandemic isn’t just morally reprehensive, it’s unconstitutional.
Time is of the essence. So let’s get out there and fight, right now, for our communities, for our voting rights and for our safety.
Diallo Brooks is the Senior Director of Outreach and Public Engagement at People For the American Way. Brooks works on civil rights, voting rights, and civic engagement to engage progressive partners and allies around PFAW’s social justice mission.