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COVID-19 and GOP vs. Voting Rights: Everything Is at Stake

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Photo of people standing in line to vote

Grassroots groups rooted in communities of color and low-income communities are rising up against efforts to suppress the vote.

One hundred days before November 3, the fight over who will vote and how is as hotly contested as any race on the ballot. The razor-thin margin of Trump’s 2016 electoral college victory, the mid-term blue wave, and the stark choices between candidates—not only at the presidential level but in legislative races that will determine who re-draws congressional districts in 30 states—all feed the fire.

“All the issues we care about are on the ballot,” said Kenia Morales, national director of the Win Justice Coalition, which brings together Community Change Action, the Service Employees International Union, Color of Change PAC and Planned Parenthood Votes. “We’ve known since Trump ran in 2016 that he would do everything to demonize, oppress, under-resource, and suppress all the specific communities Win Justice works in. If it wasn’t already obvious, given the uprisings, the deaths, the lack of response by the government when we’re seeing COVID everywhere in our communities makes it so. Americans have received one relief check and paid rent four times. . . .Given this global health crisis, if we don’t put science and expertise at the center, COVID-19 will look like child’s play.”

Supreme Court backs voter suppression

Reporters have exposed Republican plans to set up a national network of “poll watchers” that includes military veterans and off-duty police officers. The Republican National Committee has announced it will spend $20 million on lawsuits to keep restrictions on the right to vote in place, under the false flag of fighting voter fraud. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled against voting rights in several cases. SCOTUS declined to hear a challenge to Texas’ strict limits on access to absentee ballots. It blocked an effort to loosen Alabama’s absentee ballot restrictions, and overturned a US District Court ruling that would have extended the deadline for receiving absentee ballots postmarked on Election Day in Wisconsin’s chaotic primary.

National organizations that have historically defended voting rights, like the Brennan Center, the Legal Defense Fund, and the Lawyers Committee, are suing all over the country to protect ballot access. In all, this could be the most litigated election ever.

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Grassroots groups rooted in communities of color and low-income communities are rising up against efforts to suppress the vote with all the heart and tools they have. They’re digging into the painstaking work of educating and mobilizing voters, fighting disinformation and confusion in the middle of stress and trauma. The work is hyper-local, voter by voter, and they’re taking it on as an opportunity to build power by building relationships, organizations, and the connections among organizations that in turn build movements.

Electoral systems built on White supremacy

“The entire election system we have in this country is built on white supremacy,” said Randy Perez, democracy director for LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona). “It’s not accessible for folks of color, it’s not accessible for folks who are poor.” When the US government was established, states made the rules and only white men over 21 who owned land could vote. Since the first Reconstruction after the Civil War, backlash and suppression have followed each hard-won expansion of the right to vote.

After passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (amended to cover Latinx voters in 1975), access to voting expanded gradually until the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. That touched off a wave of Republican attacks on voting rights. Shelby County, Alabama, sued the US Attorney General over the Voting Rights Act, leading to the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v Holder decision. That ruling shredded the Act’s most significant enforcement provision: the requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must get US Department of Justice approval for any changes to their voting rules and procedures.

After Shelby, states enacted a spate of voting restrictions. Photo ID requirements. Purges of voter rolls. “Exact match” requirements. “Interstate cross-check.” Cuts to early voting hours. Precinct moves and closures. “We can point to folks being required to count jellybeans in a jar before they were allowed to vote under Jim Crow laws. Then we can point to more sophisticated tactics being used today like exact match, where they will purge ethnic names from the voter rolls. It’s the same fight with new weapons,” said New Georgia Project CEO Nsé Ufot.

Suppression also masquerades as “logistical” issues. Precincts lack sufficient machines, ballots, poll workers. Voting machines malfunction. Such problems more often plague precincts where poor people and people of color vote. A new study by the Brennan Center found that Black and Latinx voters waited longer to vote in 2018 than did whites, and were more likely to wait more than a half-hour to vote.

Native Americans face distinct obstacles

Native Americans face a particular set of obstacles to exercising their right to vote, starting at registration. Some jurisdictions won’t accept tribal IDs; DMV offices are far away from reservations; DMV fees may be a burden; online registration is not an option because more than 90% of reservations lack broadband. Many Indians receive mail at post office boxes rather than at home, so voting by mail involves trips to get and mail the application for the ballot and the ballot itself. In-person polling sites are often located in far-away county seats, even if more people live on reservations. (The Native American Rights Fund details these difficulties in its new report, “Obstacles at Every Turn,” which also speaks to the power of the Native vote.)

Even in non-pandemic times, voting gets complicated. States set the general rules, but local officials run the elections. The National Conference of State Legislators says there are “10,000 election administration jurisdictions in the United States.” Most are counties, but some are even smaller units such as cities or townships. Political scientists call this “decentralization.” For anyone trying to expand the electorate, it’s called a headache.

“One of the overarching problems, exacerbated by COVID, is the lack of clear information on how to actually register and vote,” said Michaela Lovegood, Deputy Executive Director for Pennsylvania Stands Up. Websites that are supposed to help are often unreliable and unclear, she said. “We all need a shared education on how to participate fully in the system. . . it’s not easy. You need to opt in to do the right thing.”

COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact

In voting as in healthcare, jobs and housing, the pandemic exposes racial and class disparities. “COVID disproportionately impacts the Black and Brown communities; the same people who are disproportionately impacted are the same people who can sway an election. People shouldn’t have to make the choice between staying safe and having their voice heard,” said Angela Lang, Executive Director of Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). “In a strong democracy, people shouldn’t have to make that choice,” Lang said.

Like many Wisconsin voters, BLOC members contended with the first and some of the worst COVID-related election meltdowns. The state’s Democratic governor issued an executive order calling for an all-mail election; the GOP-dominated legislature rejected it. He ordered the election postponed, and the state supreme court overruled him.

In Milwaukee and other large cities, polling places had lines out the door and around the block. The unprecedented demand for absentee ballots meant that people didn’t get them, or got them too late to return them in time. Despite the pandemic, a federal appeals court upheld the state’s requirement that signatures on absentee ballots be witnessed, posing an obstacle for people quarantining alone. Health risks kept some away from the polls.

Epic meltdown in Georgia too

Georgians who voted in the June 9 primary faced an epic meltdown that Nsé Ufot called “completely unacceptable and completely avoidable.” They waited for as much as six hours in 90-degree heat to vote; some waited in vain for absentee ballots, or got them late, or found them defective. Compounding the problems, the state premiered 30,000 new voting machines. COVID-19 precluded in-person training for poll workers, so they learned on the job on Election Day—and the machines routinely malfunctioned.

Even in Pennsylvania, where the June 2 election went more smoothly, voters experienced significant frustration. Out of 1,000 voters who responded to a PA Stands Up survey, nearly 100 requested but didn’t receive a mail-in ballot. Less than half of the in-person voters felt their polling place was not COVID-safe. In Philadelphia, which has the highest percentage of voters of color in the state, nearly half the voters went to the polls, compared to just over a third statewide.

“Voter suppression looks like having an in-person election knowing the pandemic is still impacting communities,” said LUCHA’s Civic Engagement Director Stephanie Maldonado. “If I’m an essential worker being exposed to hundreds of people on a daily basis, what makes me more comfortable even going to vote when I’m going to be exposed to more people, and they haven’t shared their plans on how they’re going to make the election safer? That could be a reason why hundreds and thousands of people don’t show up,” she said.

Ballot access demands

Grassroots groups working on ballot access have developed fairly consistent demands to counter voter suppression:

  • Make vote-by-mail available to every registered voter.
  • Make it easier to vote mail-in ballots—suspend requirements that ballot signatures be witnessed; prepay postage; set up convenient drop boxes; lift restrictions on people dropping off ballots for others.
  • Extend early voting hours.
  • Make in-person voting sites COVID-safe and accessible, whether in precincts or vote centers—ensure equitable distribution of voting machines, ballots, personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer at polling sites, hire more poll workers and ballot counters.
  • Start counting mail-in ballots early to reduce delay in announcing final election results.
  • Allow more time for ballots postmarked on Election Day to be received and counted.

Part 2 of this article, to be posted next week, will look at the mix of advocacy and education, nitty-gritty effort and long-term vision that organizers are stirring up to build power as they protect and expand ballot access. “When you are building relationships within a community to engage them in campaigns or engage them in voting, you’re having an impact that goes far beyond the one-on-one relationship you’re building,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance and a citizen of the Caddo Nation. “You’re impacting the entire community, you’re impacting the future of this democracy in the 2020 electionsand it’s very clear that we’re trying to protect and defend democracyand you are impacting the lives of the descendants, because everything that we do in the present has an impact on the future.”

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