We must ensure fair voting laws are implemented prior to the November 2020 elections. While the CARES Act included $400 million in emergency funding to help states prepare their elections for the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress should do more so our elections can be safely and fairly administered during this public health crisis.
First, vote-by-mail should be available to all voters should they choose that option. Southern policymakers and election officials should allow voting by mail or allow voters to submit absentee ballots without requiring an excuse. Prior to COVID-19, only Florida, Georgia and North Carolina permitted “no-excuse” absentee voting in the South.1 Efforts to allow no-excuse absentee voting in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas have been stymied.2 All Southern states should permit “no-excuse” absentee voting for all elections during this pandemic. And while no-excuse absentee and vote by mail are vital, they still require additional safeguards to prevent voter disenfranchisement and ensure that eligible voters may fully participate in the election this November, including: postage must be free or prepaid by the government; ballots postmarked on or before Election Day must count; signature matching laws need to be reformed to protect voters; and community organizations should be permitted to help collect and deliver voted, sealed ballots.
Safeguarding absentee and vote by mail is only one of many necessary steps. States must also ensure that in-person voting remains safe and available to all. For in-person voting, states must implement parameters that ensure voters can participate safely. This includes guaranteeing staffing at polls by turning to staff at state agencies, expanding early voting periods to include weekends, and developing systems that allow voters to sign up to reserve a time to vote during off-peak hours. And most importantly, officials should comply with CDC guidance that polling places be adequately sanitized to prevent transmission of coronavirus and are configured to adhere to social distancing protocols.
Finally, we must make reforms in voter registration. Before every presidential election, millions of Americans update their voter registration information or register to vote for the first time. Thirty-nine states and D.C. have either fully implemented online voter registration or are in the process of doing so. The other states should do so before November. Further, online voter registration systems should be tested and their capacity bolstered to ensure they can handle the surges in web traffic. Most importantly, public education campaigns should begin in earnest to inform voters of all changes to voting rules, all options available to register and vote and to counter misinformation. This should include advertising in non-English languages.3 Voter registration policies should meet the needs of all eligible voters, including allowing same-day registration and extended deadlines. No southern states have same-day voter registration policies, with the exception of North Carolina’s limited same-day voter registration during the early voting period.4
Voter registration among people of color in southern states continues to be stifled by a combination of strict voter identification laws, disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions, purges of registered voters, polling location closures and failures to provide required language assistance.
Before COVID-19, our country’s patchwork of state election laws sowed deep confusion about the process. Ideally, Congress should enact baseline rules to ensure that every eligible American can vote safely, securely and accessibly in the midst of the pandemic. State and local election officials should guarantee early voting, establish no-fault absentee voting, expand options for vote-by-mail requests, clarify and strengthen the use of provisional ballots, increase voter education and expand language assistance. Further, states should require automatic voter registration, allow same-day registration throughout the country, and ensure online voter registration.