Many facets of daily life have been harshly affected by the spread of COVID-19. People are losing their jobs, most major countries have seen some form of strict stay at home order, and there has been a mass movement onto online communication platforms. These things will define this era in the future, but one major aspect of life often overlooked in this crisis is voting, especially in the United States. The problem is that the virus makes in-person voting dangerous. In most states, there is no simple alternative to in-person voting, and politicians are trying to manipulate the unusual circumstances to increase grotesque voter suppression. Voting is more important than many think, and people will be voting in November to decide how their representatives have handled this tough time.
The first issue is self-isolation. Many states have strict policies where people are told only to leave their house if necessary, which has worked to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The problem is that if there is a second wave or even third wave and many are self-isolated during the November election, how does a state transition from in-person to mail-in voting? The unfortunate reality is that it is not easy. Some states are already in a good position. For example, Washington has around 4.4 million voters who all vote by mail, or there are states like Colorado, which already have secure vote-by-mail options, with a majority of the citizens voting in that way. It is a very different story when it comes to other states. Alabama and Mississippi have an ugly history regarding the ability to vote, including vote-by-mail. As Michael Wines of the New York Times says, in Alabama, "getting an absentee ballot is so hard that fewer than 55,000 of 1.7 million voters cast one in the last election." That is awful. It is a mixture of voter suppression and a love for the "old ways," but it needs to change if the people in Alabama want to record their vote in November accurately. It would not be very fair if only 55,000 people were able to vote in the election, especially considering there is going to be a tight Senate race. The other frightening thing is that it usually takes states at least a decade to transition from in-person to mail-in voting, but in this situation, it has to be done in a matter of a few months. The prospect of people having to vote in person in November is scary but might be what has to happen if states fail to get their act together.
The state of Wisconsin has already shown exactly what not to do in this situation. In their primary on April 7, people were forced to vote in person. The state did expand the availability of mail-in ballots, but it was not nearly enough. Before the election, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers tried to postpone the vote for at least a month so that the state could expand vote-by-mail even more. This would have been a great idea to stop people from being in contact with each other and potentially spread the virus. What happened is the Republicans in the state wanted to hold the election when scheduled and therefore put people in danger. They sued the decision by the governor, and the state Supreme Court struck down the delay. This led to thousands of people voting in-person during the election, most of the time without following social distance protocols and in very long lines. This did prove to be the wrong course of action because, as ABC reported, "State health officials in Wisconsin said…that 19 people who have either voted in-person or worked at a polling site on election day have so far tested positive for COVID-19 after April 9." This was said to be the tip of the iceberg, and more cases were likely to be reported. The effects of voting in-person are apparent and need to be avoided with alternative solutions.
Another unfortunate aspect of this entire situation is that politicians see it as an opportunity to increase or maintain the high levels of voter suppression some states have in place. We see this in several reactions to the unprecedented situation, from state governments and even up to the President. Places like Georgia or Florida, which will be heavily contested in the November election, have not made enough moves to make vote-by-mail easy because of their deep-rooted voter suppression. These two states are notorious for their lack of voter rights. Evidenced as recently as 2018, when the current Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, used his position as Georgia Secretary of State to purge thousands of people from voter rolls, stop new people from registering and made it very hard for many in minority communities to vote. All of these things led to a slim victory for Kemp; otherwise, it might have gone to his opponent. The fact that this happened so recently is a scary prospect because, in the current political climate, it is increasingly easy to get away with voter suppression. People like Kemp might jump on this moment of vulnerability in American democracy and work to undermine it through their insidious actions. Kemp and his colleagues can thrive without oversight because most attention is currently focused on the virus.
Governors are not the only significant political figures pushing voter suppression. The President is also forcing some of these ideas. Just in recent days, Mr. Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan and Nevada because their governors were trying to expand vote-by-mail. This is money the people desperately need to fund hospitals in the middle of a health crisis. The fact that even the President of the United States is campaigning for voter suppression shows how significant an issue this has become. The governors of Michigan and Nevada are trying to expand democracy and pathways for voting, which most would agree helps sustain healthy politics, but apparently, the President does not agree, or maybe he has his own darker motives.
Politicians always try to politicize voting and make it a partisan issue. Why is an issue like voter rights, which are both protected by the Constitution and a universal human right, still a topic of political discussion? It is baffling that politicians still debate a basic foundation of any functional democracy. It accentuates how stuck the U.S. is in the past. Any other modern, developed nation is long past these trivial discussions of who should vote or should not vote. The United States is still embroiled in its deeply racist past and still struggles with it today. The day the United States no longer debates the question of voting and sees it as a right for every single American to have access to easily, will be the day that it truly moves forward as a nation.
Teens Leading Change initiative has funded and launched 26 projects across 33 branches, including 7 projects across 9 branches that are happening now! These projects related to topics on Library Advocacy/Information Literacy, Cultural / Community Conversations & Archives, Know Your Rights, Immigration & Citizenship, Net Neutrality / Privacy, and Voting Rights & Voter Registration.