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As the presidential election nears and communities see new spikes of COVID-19 infections, some lawmakers are considering ways to ensure voters can participate safely. Meanwhile, other political leaders, like the President, seem intent on suppressing the vote by making false claims about voter fraud. 

“In light of COVID-19, election officials and policymakers are proposing significant changes in election practices and procedures, many of which will likely have a significant impact on the ability of Latinos to cast ballots in Election 2020,” said Claudia Ruiz, Analyst with UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights organization who spoke to Luz Collective by e-mail. “As we have seen in various state primaries already, these changes can cause confusion among voters regarding polling locations, drop boxes, or registration deadlines; result in significant wait times and delays due to lack of planning or adequate lead times; and fall victim to an onslaught of deliberate and targeted misinformation. This is not to mention a host of other overt voter suppression tactics that Latinos have faced in past elections, including voter roll purging, voter intimidation, lack of multi-language ballot and voter education materials, and the dissemination of false information when it comes to polling locations, hours, or registration deadlines.”

(photo credit: Lucy Nicholson

Compared to similarly developed democracies around the world, the United States has consistently had low voter turnout with only about half of the eligible voters actually turning up to vote. Despite low participation by eligible voters, a study on attitudes about voting notes that “an overwhelming share of the public (84%) says it is very important that ‘the rights and freedoms of all people are respected.’ Yet just 47% say this describes the country very or somewhat well; slightly more (53%) say it does not.” Participants in the study have good reason to question if the rights and freedoms of all people are respected when there’s been numerous efforts to suppress voters such as Illegal voter purges, discriminatory voter ID laws, or making it harder to register to vote in the first place. 

These voter suppression tactics are strategically designed to keep Black and Latino voters from exercising their rights to vote, which often translates into fewer votes for Democrats. For example, a federal court found that North Carolina’s voter ID-law showed ‘discriminatory intent’ by making the requirements for the ID difficult to meet for the elderly, low-income people, and Black people. “In what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise,” wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, as quoted in The Atlantic. According to Mother Jones, racist voter ID laws are why President Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 and could have well cost Hillary Clinton the presidential election.

When activists are up against a President drumming up support for the myth of pervasive voter fraud, Republicans intentionally suppressing the vote, and an uninspired electorate, the coronavirus is yet another obstacle in the way of civic engagement. In response, some states chose to reschedule elections. The state of Ohio chose to protect voters from the spread of COVID-19 by moving to all mail-in ballots for the state primary elections. Meanwhile, the Governor of Wisconsin was forced by the Supreme Court to keep the primary election  as originally scheduled resulting in long voting lines to adhere to social distancing and record-breaking absentee voting. 

California Governor Newsom issued an executive order so that all registered voters in the state could vote safely by mail. This has implications for the Latino vote since nearly 25% of Latino eligible voters in the nation live in the golden state. It’s unclear whether other states will similarly work to protect the ability of those at high risk for COVID-19 to vote safely.

“For our democracy to remain responsive to all of the nation’s electorate, it is critical that Latinos can fully participate in Election 2020 in a safe and accessible manner and without new barriers to voting,” said Ruiz. “Thus, any public dialogues about how to administer the 2020 elections must take into consideration the perspectives and needs of the Latino community.” 

As weeks of protests continue to denounce racism, transphobia and the Trump Administration, there is also energy around the upcoming election. Basketball star LeBron James has joined the cause. Along with other athletes, James launched More Than A Vote, an effort to safeguard voting rights and get out the vote in Black communities. James is quoted in the New York Times describing the initiative, “Yes, we want you to go out and vote, but we’re also going to give you the tutorial,” James said, “We’re going to give you the background of how to vote and what they’re trying to do, the other side, to stop you from voting.”

Along with efforts like those championed by James, the Center for American Progress makes several recommendations that can make it easier for eligible voters to participate, including restoring the right to vote to the formerly incarcerated, increasing civic education in schools, and investing in voter outreach. Adding to this list are the strategies by UnidosUS, shared by Ruiz. They are as follows: 

  • Expanding voting options
  • Increasing language accessibility
  • Maintaining geographic accessibility of in-person polling locations and/or dropboxes
  • Expanding voter education resources
  • Allocating federal support and resources to states and localities

“[We are] calling upon policymakers at the federal level to standardize emergency-era voting best practices, many of which may be found in Senator Kamala Harris’ VoteSafe Act 2020,” Ruiz said. Harris’ Vote Safe Act is supported by a diverse coalition of civil rights organization including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), NALEO Educational Fund, National Disability Rights Network, Native American Rights Fund, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).

The additional barriers to voting brought on by the pandemic heightens the important work by organizations like “More Than a Vote” and efforts like the Vote Safe Act. “The [Vote Safe Act] provides urgent funding for states to meet their obligations to offer voters a range of options to guarantee full access to the ballot box,” said Vanita Gupta, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement. “It also includes important protections for in-person voting for Native Americans, people with disabilities, and language accessibility. We must ensure everyone stays healthy while also ensuring that every eligible voter can register and cast a ballot that counts.” 

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