In a 2012 speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, the late, great civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis spoke of the rights he fought to advance his whole life. “My dear friends,” he said, “Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”
This precious tool is now in grave danger in many states, where voters face potential disenfranchisement in the November election.
The fall election promises to be one of the most important in history. There are way too many reasons why, but we need only look at the damage done by the twin pandemics of coronavirus and systemic racism to understand it will determine the fate of our people and our democracy.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned way back in April of a second — and likely worse — wave of coronavirus in the fall and winter. Yet only Washington and four other states have made the necessary shift to fully mail-in voting that is critical to ensure the Nov. 3 election will be safe and fair.
Recent primaries provided a deeply troubling foreshadowing of what’s to come in other states without urgent intervention. In Atlanta, voters waited up to seven hours to vote due to faulty machines, a shortage of poll workers and the reduction of 80 polling places in areas where the majority of the state’s Black voters live. In Milwaukee, after polling locations were reduced from 180 in 2018 to five in 2020, some lines were up to a quarter of a mile long.
In what might be a surprise for those of us in the five states that quietly do all our voting by mail, even if states were to get their mail-in voting together in time for November — a huge question — mail-in voting is not a panacea. There are no universal rules or principles for how mail-in voting is handled from state to state.
For example, in Wisconsin and nearly a dozen other states, you must have your mail-in voting witnessed by another person, which is prohibitive in good times and dangerous in a pandemic. In 26 states, election officials aren’t required to notify voters that there is an issue with their ballots before throwing them out. NPR reported this month that 65,000 votes were rejected so far this year because ballots were received after the deadline, something voters have no control over. (In Washington, ballots have to be postmarked by the deadline, not received.)
Ari Berman, a reporter for Mother Jones who wrote the book “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America” as well as a series of excellent stories on threats to voting rights in 2020, wrote, “The risk of mass voter disenfranchisement is greater in 2020 than at any time since the era before the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests in the 1960s.”
Berman reported that Black, Latino and other voters of color were more than twice as likely to have their mail-in votes rejected.
To extend Lewis’ legacy on protecting voting rights for Black people and other people of color, last week 48 U.S. senators introduced legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. Named the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” it follows the passage of identical legislation by House Democrats in December.
President Donald Trump has made opposition to mail-in voting a rallying cry, tweeting in June, “Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history — unless this stupidity is ended.”
But he’s out of step with the majority of Americans. Pew Research reported last week that 65% of Americans believe absentee voting should be available for anyone, without requiring a reason.
And the mail-in voter fraud Trump repeatedly rails against? It’s not supported by evidence. In Washington state, for example, the right-leaning Heritage Foundation didn’t find any instances of voter fraud since 2010, and we have had all-mail voting since 2011.
We are almost out of time for states to get mail-in voter systems set up. Washington’s Republican secretary of state, Kim Wyman, said back in April that she thought it would be hard to get all the states up and running by November. “You can’t just flip a switch and go from real low absentee ballots to 100 percent vote-by-mail,” she said in The New York Times.
But we have to do something — and fast. At the bare minimum, all states should allow mail-in voting without a reason. After that, they should follow what a Democratic lawyer has called the “four pillars” of fair absentee voting: allowing ballots to be postmarked on or before Election Day, providing prepaid return postage, allowing community organizations to help return sealed ballots, and establishing standards for the signature matching process. Washington already does all of these.
It will be a huge undertaking but we can’t let this election be decided by voter suppression via the very real fear of contracting a deadly virus.
As Lewis said in a March speech at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, “We must go out and vote like we’ve never voted before.” The stakes, he said, were nothing less than to “redeem the soul of America.”