Less than 40 days from the most consequential election in modern history, concern over the validity of the balloting is reaching a fever pitch. Communities of color, particularly Black voters, are fiercely engaged in ensuring that every citizen can vote and have that vote counted.
The Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged many party officials to stress mail-in and absentee balloting as a way to mobilize more voters while protecting their health. But President Trump continues to spuriously cast doubt on mail-in ballots, and even suggests that he’d reject the outcome of an election that he didn’t win.
In this fraught atmosphere, voters need to know that they can vote in person if they’d prefer. It’s more important than ever that we ensure that all Americans have access to safe and reliable in-person voting.
This is particularly true for Black voters. For the Black community, voting in person is a solemn and reverent act, full of historical significance. Our voting rights heroes like John Lewis were severely beaten or lost their lives to secure the right to vote. Today, we are encountering voter suppression tactics which grow more virulent with every election. Without the full force of the Voting Rights Act—decimated by the Supreme Court seven years ago and still not restored by Congress—voter suppression has become rampant and relentless.
In this light, the symbolism of placing the ballot into the box cannot be overstated. It represents the height of democratic participation. That’s why Black voters tend to favor in-person voting; in the 2018 midterm elections, 11 percent of Black voters cast their ballots by mail, compared to 24 percent of white voters. And it’s exactly why we must protect in-person voting—from both coronavirus and suppression.
Voter suppression targeting African Americans is in overdrive this year. This is the second presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act and it shows. Thirty-six states have voter ID laws and voter purges are at an all-time high. A study last year found that Southern states have closed nearly 1,200 polling places since the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act. In Kentucky’s primary, hundreds of thousands of voters—many of them Black—were assigned to just one polling place. A recent study on differential wait times demonstrated what voting advocates have long known: voters in communities of color wait longer to cast ballots.
What’s more, Blacks know that their ballots are rejected at a higher rate than whites.A study of rejected mail ballots in the 2018 Florida election found that ballots cast by minorities were twice as likely to be rejected as those cast by whites. In Georgia, civil rights groups sued Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Gwinnett County in 2018 for their high rejection rate of minority ballots in 2018—the rejection rate for white voters was 2.5 percent, but for Black voters was 8 percent.
Black voters know that in-person voting increases the chances that their ballots will be accepted and correctly tallied; failure to adequately prepare for in-person voting may deprive communities of color of both their vote and their health. Congress should allocate the $4 billion we have requested to states and localities to ensure that voting—whether in-person or by mail—is fair, safe and secure. Every option for voting requires substantial financial support; we cannot elevate one at the expense of another.
When it comes to mail-in and absentee ballots, every state should adopt no-excuse voting by mail, with eligibility for all voters, and implement practices ensuring absentee ballots are mailed, received, and counted in a timely manner. Onerous requirements for witnesses or notaries to observe voters requesting and completing absentee ballots disproportionately exclude voters of color and should be jettisoned. The U.S. Postal Service must prepare for the onslaught of ballots and dismantle sweeping changes by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that were rooted in partisanship and subject to multiple legal challenges, including one filed by the NAACP.
But mail-in balloting cannot take the place of in-person voting. Jurisdictions should have ample polling venues, large enough to accommodate social distancing. Polling sites should be sanitized and properly staffed and resourced. We must identify “problem precincts,” where lines are routinely long, and have a plan to address them ahead of time. The NAACP is recruiting poll workers and monitors to ensure the machinery of democracy works as smoothly as possible. Paper ballots, which offer more safety and reliability, should be utilized rather than touchscreen machines.
Early voting should be expanded. Unfortunately, ten states including Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina still do not permit it. Where available, early voting allows voters to cast ballots in person at a polling place or local elections office, avoiding longer lines and the post office altogether. Even ballots delivered to voters by mail can be completed and returned by hand to an election office or deposited in drop boxes, which are in high demand given concerns that the postal service will not deliver ballots on time.
At higher risk of both coronavirus and voter suppression, Black voters face a double threat to democracy this year. It’s no wonder that 71 percent of Black Americans believe white voters have an easier time voting.
If ever we needed more options for participating in democracy, it is now. All citizens deserve to be able to cast their ballots and have confidence in the integrity of our elections. In a bitterly contested election, with the future of our democracy at stake, Americans must trust that everyone can vote freely and safely, wherever they choose to do it.