What are the crucial legal issues, both prior to the election and once the votes are in, that people need to be thinking about?
I think there’s a set of legal issues leading up to the election. Are states actually doing what they can and should be doing to protect voters and not make voters have to choose between their safety and voting? Then there are concerns around a law-enforcement presence and the presence of private citizens for voter intimidation.
There are also concerns about the safety and availability of polling places. We did a report last year that showed systematic polling-place closures—over sixteen hundred polling places closed between 2012 and 2018 in jurisdictions that were previously covered by the Voting Rights Act. And now, with COVID-19, a lack of planning may mean fewer polling places. And there is concern about poll workers, who tend to be retirees in this country—we’ve got to be planning for all of that and insuring that there remains in-person voting. That’s why we need early voting to allow for social distancing to stop the lines. There’s going to be a lot of legal issues around making sure that polling places are open and that in-person voting is available.
And then, right after the vote, you have questions of how the absentee ballots are counted. Studies have shown that voters of color have a higher rate of rejection of absentee ballots. There’s going to be a lot of litigation around that, I suspect. And questions about which ballots are getting rejected. There will be a slew of legal issues present around that.
Can you explain to people why it’s so important to have younger poll workers?
The majority of poll workers in this country are retirees. They’re older people who are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. You need poll workers to operate polling places, and, at a time when we’ve already seen systematic closures of polling places around the country, and particularly in Section 5 jurisdictions around the South, the greatest impact of not having polling places in the kind of numbers that you need falls predominantly on voters of color living in high-density urban areas.
And that’s why you saw the photos that you saw in Milwaukee during the primaries, when there were some really staggering statistics. Only five polling places were open in Milwaukee. But then you have the massively long lines in usually Black and brown neighborhoods, and that can be a real deterrent to voting, and a form of suppression.
So that’s the problem. That’s why we need to be recruiting younger poll workers, and not just recruiting them but making sure that there’s infrastructure in place so that state and local officials are able to train them and actually deploy them. It won’t be good enough to have lists of volunteers ready to be deployed. There is also the lead-up, because in a lot of places we’re pushing for early voting, and so you might have voting for twenty days prior to the actual election. So, for the duration of the early-voting period, that’s when you need younger poll workers.
When you say “we,” do you mean states, or are you saying that the Biden campaign should be putting out the message of their importance, or that advocacy organizations like yours should be putting out this message?
The states need to do it; the N.G.O. community is already doing it. There are a couple of efforts that exist. And we need to help thread the needle between those that are volunteering and making sure that there’s infrastructure. And the campaigns will be setting up their party poll watchers, as well.
What have you made of the Trump Administration’s attacks on the Post Office? Is there something that people in Congress or elsewhere should be thinking of doing if the Administration tries to seriously mess with the Post Office?
Yeah. I’m deeply alarmed by this. I think there is no question that the Trump Administration is attacking core democratic institutions and they are threatening the infrastructure that is required to hold a safe, secure, accessible, and fair election in November. So you have this attack on the United States Postal Service, in which the President puts in a donor to run the agency, who makes cuts, and the result is delays in the mail. You look at the President’s tweet, from Monday, where Nevada passed a slew of measures seeking to expand [mail-in] voting. He knows that the Postal Service is a crucial part of our democratic infrastructure, especially in this election amid a pandemic.
So the things that need to happen are that Congress needs to provide adequate funding to push back on any notion of the need to make these cuts. In the absence of that, there is no reason why states should not be changing the rules, if they haven’t already, to accept ballots that have been postmarked on Election Day. You can provide a reasonable window of fifteen days, twenty days after the election, because there could be these delays to the U.S. Postal Service. So many of these states still have not done that, and that is a really important fix.
If a person can wear a mask and is able to vote safely in person, given all the things we’ve talked about, would you suggest that they do that?
My suggestion is that, for voters who can, they should apply as soon as possible for a mail-in ballot or an absentee ballot, fill it out carefully, and then send it back or drop it off as early as possible so as to relieve pressure on polling places on the day of, when people for whom it is essential—like Native American voters who may not have U.S. postal addresses, or voters with disabilities who need assistance, or voters of color who, because of cultural reasons and historical reasons, may not trust the Postal Service—can vote. Keep in-person voting for those who consider it essential for whatever reason. If others engage in this process as early as possible, it will also, frankly, help secretaries of state to be able to count their votes earlier. There will be less of a surge, and it’ll reduce the delay in actually being able to announce the results after November 3rd.
I’ve also been doing a lot of advocacy with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook around this, and pushing scenarios that Facebook and other social-media companies need to be prepared for, because they can play a very significant role, both in feeding disinformation before the election but then also after. It’s a really important part of voter education, and we have been really frustrated. There’s been a lot of very direct engagement that I’ve had with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg about this, and so have other civil-rights groups.
Do you think they’re taking this seriously?
They did take some stuff seriously. They are recognizing the kind of reach that they have to provide accurate information through this voter center they have set up, and to do G.O.T.V. registration. What I am still really frustrated about is that they are not enforcing the voter-suppression policy that we worked on with them in 2018. They do not define voter suppression and identify it in the way that we do. And that is a huge problem when they are allowing posts to remain up that intentionally sow confusion and fear in voters, but they don’t recognize it as voter suppression in many instances. They lean back on the idea that it is the free expression of politicians.