Voter Access and Participation During the Coronavirus Pandemic

THE ISSUE

The fundamental right of every eligible voter to cast their ballot and every resident to be counted as a member of society are the cornerstones of our democracy. How we deploy resources, make real the social norms and standards across every community, shape our daily lives through policy, and move forward the shared values of this country are all based on this foundation. The Covid-19 pandemic has called into question how we as a nation can ensure elections are free of barriers for all eligible voters, and that the 2020 Census counts all persons living in the country. This crisis requires the federal government, in partnership with states, to provide dedicated resources guaranteeing all communities—especially those systematically left behind—are included.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT

Full voter participation is essential to ensuring elected leaders and policy decisions meet the needs of the community. The United States already struggles with voter participation. Significant percentages of eligible voters are not registered, many registered voters do not consistently show up at the polls, and large numbers of would-be voters—particularly people of color, low-income people, the young, and the elderly—are deterred by state laws and procedures designed to suppress the vote. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, state and local election administrators are faced with the added burden of balancing the health and safety of voters and their families with having a fair and inclusive election process. This is a challenge a robust democracy must meet.

The 2020 Census and a complete count is vital to all communities across the nation, and particularly to communities of color, which have long been overlooked and undercounted. The allocation of public funds to local, state and tribal governments to improve the lives of their people through education, health care, transportation and other means, and even the number of Congressional seats our communities receive are all at stake. That is why we all have the civic responsibility to participate in the Census, and Congress has the responsibility to ensure that even through this pandemic, no person goes uncounted.

WHAT POLICY MAKERS SHOULD DO

To avert catastrophe and reduce the harm of the coronavirus, the NAACP recommends the following:

Voting

  • Guarantee early voting. Require that every state establish early voting sites at least two weeks prior to a general election day.
  • Establish no-fault absentee voting. Mail-in ballot options should be made available to all registered voters (not just those on absentee voter lists). All voters should have ballots mailed to them and be provided with a list of options as to how to cast their completed ballots (including pre-paid postage for mail return). Given that mail-in voting may be the only option for people who need assistance, or who are immune-compromised, to cast a ballot, states must allow voters who cannot vote in person—particularly people with disabilities, illness, or language assistance needs—to obtain assistance completing and submitting ballots from individuals they designate.
  • Expand options for vote by mail requests. Options for requesting, receiving, and returning mail-in ballots should be expanded while maintaining the security of the voting system. States should offer multiple methods of requesting mail-in ballots, including online, in person, by phone, and by mail. Secure options for returning ballots should be expanded, and deadlines for mail-in ballots to be requested and returned should be relaxed.
  • Clarify and strengthen the use of provisional ballots. Ensure provisional ballots are counted. Jurisdictions should prepare for a surge in provisional voting due to delays in the processing of voter registration applications, voter confusion resulting from polling place closures and consolidations, and unfamiliarity with absentee voting.
  • Increase voter education. States must undertake aggressive voter education campaigns as they make necessary changes to their policies and practices and must additionally counter any disinformation (intentional or not) with facts and accurate information.
  • Expand language assistance. Ensure language assistance is available by phone and online for all eligible voters.

Voter Registration

  • Require automatic voter registration. Require every state to use modern technology to automatically and permanently register all eligible voters.
  • Allow same-day registration throughout the country. Ensure voters can both register and vote on Election Day at their polling place.
  • Ensure online voter registration. Ensure online voter registration is a secure and viable option nationally.
  • Outlaw “voter caging”. Make illegal a practice by which mail is sent to a registered voter’s address and, if the mail is returned as “undeliverable” or if it is delivered and the voter does not respond, his or her registration is challenged.
  • Eliminate voter suppression measures. Ensure that strict photo ID laws and other suppression measures such as strict signature match are not enacted to disenfranchise voters.
  • Extend voter registration deadlines. States must extend voter registration deadlines considering likely curtailment of government services and other potential online breakdowns.

Non-Restrictive Polling Options and Social Distancing

  • Reconsider polling locations. State and local officials must make any necessary modifications regarding polling place site determinations and administration of those locations. When considering such modifications, election administration officials must identify locations that both protect vulnerable communities and ensure that Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, racial and language minority voters, voters with disabilities, and students have the access they need to cast their votes.
  • Comply with CDC guidance. Polling places must be adequately sanitized to prevent transmission of the virus, and should follow guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention including requiring sick poll workers to stay home, regularly cleaning frequently touched surfaces, disinfecting potentially contaminated surfaces, such as voting machines, and frequent hand washing and sanitizing. Polling places should be reconfigured in order to adhere to social distancing protocol, creating additional space between voting booths, poll workers, and voters standing in line.

2020 Census

  • Shift census funding. Expand the 2020 Census marketing and promotion budget for online and digital communications.
  • Adjust census data collection. Double down on census enumeration through online and phone by promoting those options through social media, email, and SMS communications.
  • Update census mail. In subsequent census mailings, include easy instructions and encourage people to complete the form by phone and/or online as the safest options to maintain social distance.