Protecting Our Elections During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak is not only a public health emergency and an economic crisis — it also threatens our elections. Elections are foundational to our democracy. But as federal, state, tribal, and local governments issue stay-at-home orders and encourage residents to practice social distancing to combat the virus, large-scale, in-person voting on Election Day could present serious risks to public health. While many states have taken steps to postpone primary elections or adopted policies — like online registration, early voting, and vote by mail — to make it easier for eligible Americans to vote safely, others are moving ahead with ill-advised plans that could accelerate the spread of disease.

Our government needs to act immediately to make sure elections in the United States can proceed safely, securely, and on time — even as this outbreak drags on. But last week, Donald Trump asserted that if we made it easier for more people to vote, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” And he’s just the latest in a string of right-wing politicians who have embraced efforts to make it harder for people to vote — by closing polling places, purging millions of voters from voting rolls, limiting early voting, and passing restrictive voter identification laws. The Supreme Court smoothed the way for this undemocratic agenda by defanging the nation’s signature voting rights law that protected disenfranchised voters of color, disabled and language-minority voters, and other vulnerable groups.

In times of crisis, when people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line, it is more important than ever that elected representatives are held accountable. There is no room for partisanship when it comes to protecting the basic machinery of our democracy. In the next coronavirus relief package that passes Congress, Democrats and Republicans who respect our form of government must take four simple steps to protect the health and safety of America’s voters, ensure states are equipped with the resources they need, and strengthen our electoral institutions for the long haul.

First, we must ensure that all Americans can register to vote safely and easily. This means not only preventing the pandemic from being used as a cover for voter purges, but also restoring voter rolls and accelerating opportunities for online registration.

In recent years, states like Wisconsin and Georgia have accelerated efforts to remove hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily from their voter rolls. A Brennan Center analysis estimated that at least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, and counties with a history of voter discrimination purged voters at much higher rates . We must not allow Republicans to exploit the pandemic to engage in voter suppression when people are least equipped to fight back because they are staying home, caring for loved ones, or struggling to make ends meet — and many government offices are closed. Congress should ban states from purging their voter rolls unless an individual affirmatively requests to be removed or there is objective documentary evidence, such as an official record of death or affirmative change of address. States should be banned from using returned mail or a registered voter’s failure to participate in the election as an excuse to purge voters from the rolls, and Congress should also require that states restore to the rolls any voter whose name was removed since the current state of emergency was declared.

Congress must also make sure registration is not a barrier to voting during this crisis. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia already offer online voter registration, but Congress should require all states to offer this option, in 2020 and beyond. States should also extend registration deadlines as much as practicable to account for government office closures and other disruptions due to the current pandemic — and all states should offer same-day registration.

Second, we must keep voters healthy by making the process of casting a ballot easier and more accessible, including by giving everyone the option to vote by mail and enhancing the safety of in-person voting.

One obvious way to protect public health during this emergency is to allow — and encourage — Americans to submit ballots from home. Two-thirds of states already offer no-excuse absentee voting. Senators Klobuchar and Wyden have proposed the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, a bill to give every eligible American the opportunity to vote by mail. The bill includes important protections to ensure these ballots are submitted, counted, and tracked. Congress should pass it immediately, and put in place protections to ensure that individuals who vote by mail don’t have their ballots discounted or thrown out without justification. But Congress should also go further — by requiring all states to mail every registered voter a ballot with pre-paid postage and a self-sealing envelope, and mandating that they waive absentee ballot requirements that undermine social distancing guidelines, such as requirements that absentee voters submit copies of their IDs or include a notary or witness signature with their mail-in ballot.

While badly needed, these reforms will put additional stress on the already teetering United States Postal Service (USPS), which is on track to run out of money within weeks. Congress must also act swiftly to shore up USPS so that as many Americans as possible can vote from home.

Online registration and voting by mail are important steps in protecting voters during this pandemic, but those policies alone will not protect some of the most vulnerable. States must also be prepared to assist these and any other voters who need to vote in person. Many voters — including voters of color, those in low-income communities, and people with disabilities — may face greater obstacles to participating in elections from home. Some voters lack access to mail service or reliable broadband, or require language or other assistance to complete their ballot. Others may be required to isolate away from home to care for a loved one or distance from a quarantined household member.

And to accommodate voters while implementing social distancing and heightened sanitation guidelines, all states should provide at least 30 days of early voting. Congress should also require states to retain in-person voting on Election Day, allow eligible individuals to vote with a sworn statement of identity instead of a voter ID, and permit registered voters to vote at any polling place within their district. To help prevent overcrowding and promote social distancing, states should extend polling place hours. And in order to protect seniors and others with underlying health conditions, a pandemic is not the time to use nursing homes, retirement communities, or other locations with a high concentration of vulnerable people as polling locations.

There are other, straightforward steps that Congress must require states to take to ensure that all voters, regardless of race or ethnicity, language, tribal citizenship, or ability have equal access to the ballot. Congress should immediately pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Native American Voting Rights Act, which are critical pieces of legislation to restore and expand voting rights protections for vulnerable groups. And we should go further by ensuring, for instance, that every polling place is equipped with voting machines that are accessible for people with disabilities. States should also be required to provide repeated, advance notice of any changes to elections, including polling place closures or relocations, in multiple languages and formats, including mail, email, text, call, and social and traditional media outlets.

Third, we must protect the integrity of our elections during this time of crisis by countering disinformation and bolstering election security. Disinformation about the coronavirus is spreading like wildfire, and China and Russia have already begun to use the crisis to peddle false conspiracy theories and further divide Americans. Russia interfered in our 2016 presidential election; we must make sure that foreign actors and adversaries cannot use this moment of crisis to undermine our elections.

We must spread the message now that Americans will have the opportunity to vote safely in November. Social media platforms must redouble their efforts to identify, prevent, and remove disinformation from their platforms, and alert users affected by disinformation campaigns. And Congress must make sure that states don’t have to choose between protecting voters and securing voting systems. This is particularly important as we make other needed reforms to our election system, so that we can be confident in the integrity of the results. That’s why Congress should require that states put in place robust ballot tracking tools to ensure voters can follow their ballot at every step, as well as ensure that states institute post-election audits.

Last year, Congress approved $425 million in funding for states to upgrade their election systems. Election security advocates warned that the amount was far too low for states to meet the threat to our election systems. Now, even that funding may not be used for its intended purpose. The Election Assistance Commission recently announced that states could use funds that were supposed to go to strengthening election infrastructure to pay for sanitation supplies related to the coronavirus pandemic. Sanitation efforts are critical — but so is election integrity. Congress must provide the necessary funding and resources states desperately need to guard against foreign threats protect voters, election workers, and the public during the pandemic.

Finally, we must provide states the resources they need to administer the vote and to keep poll workers safe. The single most important step the federal government can take to protect our elections during this pandemic is to provide immediate and adequate funding to states to make the changes needed to ensure that every eligible American can vote. States generally foot the bill for running elections, with limited funding from the federal government. The coronavirus crisis is stretching states to the limit, and without substantial funds dedicated to elections, states will struggle to make the necessary adjustments to their election process.

The CARES Act provided $400 million dollars in election grants to help states “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” That’s a fraction of what it will cost states to make the necessary reforms. Protecting our elections during this public health emergency will require billions in funding, not millions. With elections continuing across the country and states struggling to meet the new demands imposed by this novel virus, Congress must move swiftly to fill the gap in funding and provide no less than $4 billion to ensure that states have the resources they need to successfully administer elections — while ensuring these resources are used appropriately by conditioning funding on adopting specific measures that will protect voters and reduce barriers to voting.

As states take steps to prepare for elections during a pandemic, they must also focus on keeping poll workers safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance to help states prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling places. Recommendations include encouraging workers to stay home if they’re sick or experiencing symptoms that can be indicative of COVID-19, equipping polling locations with sufficient supplies of soap and hand sanitizer, and incorporating social distancing strategies like increasing the space between voting booths and posting signs to encourage voters to stay at least 6 feet apart. States should implement these guidelines, but Congress must do more. Poll workers put themselves at increased risk to help keep our democracy function. Every poll worker should be compensated for their work, and Congress should guarantee that every poll worker receives hazard pay too.

The task of protecting our democracy has never been more vital. Americans are struggling with the dual crises of a public health emergency and a looming economic depression. Meanwhile, Republicans are using the crisis to accelerate an undemocratic power grab and disenfranchise millions. Congress must act to protect our upcoming elections, keep voters and poll workers safe, and safeguard our electoral institutions for the long haul.

United States Senator, Massachusetts

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