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The Coronavirus Crisis Response Should Point the Way to Long-Term Voting Reform

As election officials, legislatures, and organizations scramble to make plans for the November election, their activity should be a roadmap to a process of reform that has already been moving in that same direction

Harvard Ash Center
Mar 23 · 6 min read

Written by Miles Rapoport, Ash Center Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy

The most consequential public health crisis of our lifetimes is coinciding with the most consequential elections of our lifetimes. So the issue of how America is going to manage our democratic system through the crisis has become front and center. And, as in so many areas of our public life, what happens in this crisis will shape future policies and institutions in profound ways.

It will be the case with elections, and it definitely should be. As election officials, legislatures, and organizations working to protect and improve our democracy scramble to make plans for November, their activity should be a roadmap, and, more importantly, a sharp shove in the back, to a process of change that has been walking, slowly and haltingly, in the same direction.

The simple reason is that the way to keep people safe during this election by promoting social distancing, and the way to run elections to maximize participation, largely utilize the same principle: Give people the maximum possible opportunities to register and to vote.

Multiple efforts to run this November’s elections in the best way are already moving forward. In Congress, the Klobuchar-Wyden bill would require that every state have a disaster election preparedness plan that includes wide opportunities for mail-in voting, and includes a requirement of 20 days of early voting as well. The National Association of Secretaries of State is promoting the various steps states have taken to protect the elections and ensure the ability of people to vote. The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights has coordinated over 200 groups writing in support of an agenda of measures, utilizing a program created by the Brennan Center. And there is a major push to include at least two billion dollars in funding for the 2020 elections in the mega-packages Congress is creating to deal with the virus.

While some have rightly called for the management of the 2020 elections not to become mired in partisan politics, it is hard not to see the ways in which what is needed today for voting in the crisis is also what is needed to allow for maximum participation in our democracy in the future.

The most immediate and most obvious response for a corona-impacted election is to allow people to vote from home through a mail ballot. Currently, the status of mail balloting is all over the map. Six states — Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, and California — send ballots to all or almost all voters already. Other states are moving in this direction. At the other extreme, nineteen states require voters to have an ‘excuse’ for not voting in person. It is obvious that a pandemic is a pretty good excuse for voting by mail, but this crisis should move every state towards having a full mail voting option for every voter (no excuses needed), including the ability to return ballots in person, for every election.

While mail-in voting has gotten the most headlines, early voting is another part of the critical response which should also be part of every election, always. Early voting gives voters real choices to manage their participation, and it helps relieve the crushes and lines on election day. Early voting has made progress in the last decade, but it is very uneven. 37 states now offer varying numbers of days (from five to 45) for early voting, and largely among early voting states, there are diverging practices in terms of providing accessible and convenient options. Every state should move to at least two weeks of early voting for all elections, with multiple convenient locations where people can cast their ballots.

Just as the virus or other emergency disrupts voting, it also interferes with citizens’ ability to register. Advance registration deadlines coupled with closed offices and the inability for officials or organizations to register people in malls, at large gatherings, or door-to-door, ensure that many people will be unable to register and lose their franchise thereby. Again, 23 states and the District of Columbia offer Same Day Registration, 23 states allow young people at 16 or 17 to pre-register, 40 states offer on-line registration, and a rapidly growing number are automatically registering people during their interaction with state agencies. But these options should be available to every citizen in every state.

In the same way that the virus is making it more difficult to register, it is making it even more difficult for many people to obtain the required forms of ID that some states have chosen to require. Already, it is estimated that 40 million Americans don’t have the required documents for some states’ laws. These requirements should be relaxed for this emergency, but they have already proven themselves to be a solution to a problem that really doesn’t exist, fraudulent in-person voting. These should be repealed, and a set of minimally difficult procedures should be in place for the expanded mail-in voting that we will definitely see this November and in the future.

States, counties, and municipalities are now scrambling for funds to make the changes they will need to accommodate the virus. Our democracy should be included in the bailout funds; estimates are that over two billion dollars will be needed for November. But, obviously, this is a clear case where for the long term, adequate funding absolutely must be provided by the federal government and all state governments. The list, for November and ongoing, is long: funds for purchasing and continually updating machines; major investment in high-performing voting list management; money for safe and pre-paid mail voting; creating a larger, more diverse, and better-paid cadre of poll workers; and making special accommodations to guarantee access for tribal voting and for voters with disabilities; and. Funding also needs to include a major public education effort to ensure that voters know what to do, and have the opportunity to ward off misinformation from whatever source.

The coronavirus imposed itself on a public health system that was not ready for it, but which could have been. The CDC is an agency with the technical expertise, professionalism, and authority to guide the nation through the crisis, were it not hollowed out by deliberate mismanagement and ignored by political design.

However, our election system has no analog whatsoever. Local officials have resisted state controls in many cases, and states have steadfastly resisted federal oversight, at first from the Department of Homeland Security even when the Russian cyberattacks on our election systems became known. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the Election Assistance Commission, a small and weak federal office that was very carefully titled to avoid any implication of authority. It can and does help in various ways, like helping with testing voting machines and promoting best practices. But it has no ability to enforce standards or ensure that our election processes function well, either in a crisis like today or for the long-term participation we need for American democracy to function at its best. We need that kind of expertise and ability, now more than ever.

Hopefully, the misery and force of the coronavirus can spur serious work on our democratic process as part of our new normal. Many states have moved forward, but a patchwork of varying policies, inadequate funding, and the absence of an authoritative national voice is helpful neither in a crisis nor for our democratic future.

About the Author: Miles Rapoport

Miles Rapoport is a Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation. Previously, Rapoport was President of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause, & for 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos. Rapoport served as Secretary of the State in Connecticut from 1995–1999, & served ten years in the Connecticut legislature.

COVID-19 Public Sector Resources

A resource center, curated by the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, for public sector practitioners to highlight cases, teaching, policy solutions, and other examples of how governments are responding to the outbreak

Harvard Ash Center

Written by

A global research center housed at Harvard focused on making the world a better place by advancing excellence and innovation in governance and public policy.

COVID-19 Public Sector Resources

A resource center, curated by the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, for public sector practitioners to highlight cases, teaching, policy solutions, and other examples of how governments are responding to the outbreak

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