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Will your vote be counted as we move to mail-in-voting this election year? The odds may not be in your favor.
The advent of COVID-19 has disrupted an already contentious US election cycle and precipitated conditions that could derail the voting process in Election 2020.
“Sizable shares of the population may not be able to vote safely in 2020,” said Dr. Nathaniel Persilly, a Stanford University law professor and political scientist, at a media briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services on August 21. The pandemic is forcing a massive shift in the way people cast their vote in the next few months as local jurisdictions reshape voting processes that could vary significantly across the country, a changeover that could potentially disenfranchise millions of voters.
“Without the political will to steer the electorate in a new normal balloting system, the pandemic will determine who votes and how they vote,” cautioned Dr. Persilly, who runs the Healthy Elections Project at Stanford.
By March it was clear that the pandemic was going to severely impact the election. Tens of millions of people accustomed to voting by mail or at a polling station would need to move to a new voting system different than it has been historically. Changing how 50 to 60 million people vote in the midst of a relentless pandemic and a dysfunctional voting process could cause a crisis in American democracy, that particularly affects minorities and communities of color, said experts at the briefing.
Will the American electorate be able to safely cast their vote in the next general election? Panelists agreed that conflicting factors make that outcome uncertain. Retrofitting the voting process is complicated by the lack of money and time needed for that transition, noted Dr. Persilly, because “we have three months not three years to deal with it.”
Congress appropriated $400 million to states to address election challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, but that is not nearly enough said Dr. Persilly, calling it “a fraction – ten percent – of what is needed to pull off this election.” In addition, the decentralization of the US electoral infrastructure has placed critical decisions about voting in the hands of over ten thousand local jurisdictions and produced a fractured voting system.
It will be a challenging task to implement a pandemic-proof election when election officials are constrained by the absence of a national election strategy, inadequate funding, a postal service under duress and a record shortage of poll workers.
Power the Polls are reporting that voting facilities need 250,000 new poll workers to work the election. Most poll workers are over 60 and at risk due to the coronavirus. A new generation of poll workers is long overdue, remarked Dr. Persilly, suggesting the recruitment of a new workforce aged 18-20, adept at using technology and digital voting equipment, and who should receive ‘hazard pay’ of $300 a day to work the voting frontlines in the midst of a raging pandemic.
The Pandemic Affects Voters of Color
A major concern during the pandemic is the threat to voter access for communities of color who represent a rising proportion of voters in both the 2020 presidential elections and in many swing states. The immigrant vote experienced “big jumps in voter tun out between 2014 and 2018,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan of AAPI Data, noting that 28% of registered, foreign born voters are Asian Americans.
But experts say the logistics of moving to mail-in voting during the pandemic will threaten voter access in communities of color.
“If they held an election tomorrow, 1.3 million voters will not be able to vote,” said Andrea Miller of Reclaim Our Vote. Certain states could exploit the pandemic to enforce voter suppression and voter intimidation strategies and prevent voters of color from casting their ballot. Miller confirmed that a concerted effort to block certain demographics from voting “is most definitely planned.”
Of 245 million age-eligible voters in the US, “48 million are unregistered or inactive,” explained Miller, referring to people once on the active voter list but who lost the right to cast a legal ballot. In southern and western states which maintain voter rolls, voters can be removed (deemed inactive/moved to the ‘inactive list’ and then to ‘unregistered’ status), for not having voted in a specific number of federal elections.
Currently 16.6 million community of color voters have been dropped from the voter rolls for Election 2020, said Miller, condemning the “severe bait and switch’ tactics used to manipulate and suppress unsuspecting voters.
People believe when they initially register to vote that its ‘forever’ explained Miller. The registration process does not make it clear they will be removed from voter rolls if they miss voting in certain election cycles. Recipients often miss the fine print on postcards reminding them to reconfirm their registered voter status – a requirement that “ought to be in big red letters on front of the postcard,” stated Miller.
Often it’s too late for ‘unregistered ‘voters on election day. Voter suppression states tend to have strict photo ID requirements and do not offer same day registration or automatic registration to ‘inactive;’ voters. In Texas, voters can be “unregistered’ for not renewing voter registration after two years. “Texas makes no bones about this,” said Miller. “If you do not vote consistently, after two federal elections, they will begin the process of removal from voter rolls.”
Historically, vote by mail has been a ‘white process.’ Communities of color moving to mail in votes could have their ballots challenged if a signature does not match the one on file or is missing altogether. Votes are less likely to be counted if their authenticity is challenged warned Dr. Persilly, urging voters to verify mail-in ballots at drop off voting facilities. “ A signature could derail your vote.”
Voters with limited English proficiency find the voting process daunting, added Terry Ao Minnis of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), pointing out that three in four Asian Americans speak a language other than English at home and find the language in voting materials too complex to understand.
Ao Minnis reminded participants that the Voting Rights Act (Section 203) gives members of a language minority group the right to language assistance in the form of native language ballots, translator written materials, and multilingual poll workers. Section 208 mandates that they can choose a friend or relative to assist with the voting process. But many voters are unaware of their voting rights.
AAJC has developed in-language translated materials to explain how Asian Americans can exercise their right to vote and run a hotline (888 API Vote or 888 2374 8683) in English and 8 Asian languages that includes Hindi, Urdu and Bengali.
An Election Like No Other
Despite a rise in voter turnout, data from an ongoing AAPI survey shows both political parties have paid scant attention to the AAPI community. Director Ramakrishnan reported that 56% of respondents said they had no contact from the Democratic party or from Republicans (59 %). Targeted voter messaging is key to voter engagement and participation, said Ramakrishnan, emphasizing the need for ‘visually appealing outreach material’ that is demographically representative and culturally relevant.
Messaging via multiple touchpoints – door-door, phone calls, mailings or trusted messengers – should alleviate fears about COVID exposure and reinforce that drop off voting is safe, urged Ramakrishnan. Voter messaging must also counter misconceptions about fraud and explain tracking and verification processes. Failure to do so could reduce turnout and people will refrain from voting by mail, warned Ramakrishnan. In 2018, districts flipped in key congressional elections which have significant AAPI population “so really there should be more outreach to immigrants,” he added.
The Asian American electorate is energized but “our community has yet to maximize our voting power,” said Ao Minnis.
In an election year like no other, more than voting rights are at stake for communities of color. If the pandemic determines who gets to vote and how in Election 2020, it will fundamentally change the practice of democratic elections and reshape the face of the American electorate.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents
Images: Healthy Elections Project; Ethnic Media Services