We know that COVID-19 is a threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans. But a less-discussed effect of the pandemic is its impact on the health and safety of our elections.
Elections require people to gather together for long periods of time, a set of conditions which increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. For the wellbeing of our democracy, steps must be taken to protect both voters and the elections that they participate in.
Fifteen states have taken the necessary step of delaying voting in their upcoming primaries because of COVID-19. But this is not enough: Congress must take action to foster a fair election process, and states must do more to ensure that all people can vote safely in 2020 and beyond.
Congress should require states to extend the period for casting in-person ballots and provide funding to states to ensure that they can afford the extended election process.
On the national level, Congress should require states to extend the period for casting in-person ballots and provide funding to states to ensure that they can afford the extended election process. Allowing people to vote in person over the course of a week-long period could prevent crowds from forming at polling places and make social distancing easier.
And for their part, state governments should make voter registration universally available online and by mail, thus allowing people to remain in their homes when they register to vote. Same day voter registration must also be allowed at polling places, in order to prevent paperwork backlogs that have plagued other government programs. Fortunately, same day voter registration is already in place in 21 states and the District of Columbia.
Extensions should also be made to the absentee voting period, as was done in Ohio. For some, this would require reforming existing absentee voting systems to respond to this new crisis. In 17 states, for instance, you are required to have a “valid excuse” for voting absentee. In some states, working a shift during all voting hours, advanced age, or observing a sabbath that falls on election day are not always considered valid excuses.
The congressional COVID-19 response must secure the health of our democracy by protecting our elections.
Even in states that allow absentee ballots to be requested without providing a reason, it can still be difficult to get a ballot as people are required to apply for a ballot weeks in advance. States should extend the deadline to request absentee ballots to ensure that no one loses their right to vote.
And overall, whatever new systems are put in place to protect voters, we must ensure that people of color, low-income people, and other vulnerable populations are protected. In the past, poll closures have disproportionately affected communities of color. States must review any changes in policy, particularly the closing of polling places, to ensure that at-risk communities are not adversely affected. Appropriate steps must be taken to ensure that voters are educated about all of the options available to them. Most importantly, reforms should be multifaceted and offer a number of different options to cast a ballot.
The congressional COVID-19 response must secure the health of our democracy by protecting our elections. The HEROES Act (H.R. 6800) includes a number of provisions that will help to ensure elections that are safe and equitable this November. FCNL calls on Congress to pass this critical legislation. Expanded absentee ballot provisions, extended opportunities to vote, and “day-of” registration are necessary to protect our democracy.