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The Student PIRGs, our sister organization, has joined Rock the Vote’s “Democracy Summer” effort, which aims to register 200,000 new voters ahead of the fall elections. Last week, 200 Student PIRGs interns started working in a dozen states across the country helping their peers register to vote and pledge to vote safely during the pandemic.
Even though the national debate around vote by mail is riddled with partisanship, states are moving ahead with plans to make the November elections safe and accessible. We want to highlight this lead in a recent NBC News article, which frames the issue in exactly the right way: “most state officials are ignoring partisanship and quietly laying the groundwork for an effective, mail-heavy election, including in those states led by Republicans.”
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele also published a piece this week in the National Review criticizing national Republican leaders for failing to get on board thus far with sensible reforms to safeguard democracy during the pandemic. It’s worth reemphasizing that state officials, Democrat and Republican, are taking responsible steps.
Tuesday’s Primary Elections
Eight states and Washington, D.C. held primary elections Tuesday. Because of the pandemic, more people than ever voted by mail, representing a major test for state elections systems ahead of the November general election.
In Pennsylvania, absentee ballot requests increased seventeen-fold over the 2016 primary, due both to the state becoming a no-excuse absentee voting state last fall, as well as COVID-19. As a result, we won’t know the final outcome for several days. PennPIRG’s Emma Horst-Martz emphasized the need to assess and learn from mistakes, and prepare immediately for November.
In Maryland, the state fell short of holding a truly safe and successful COVID-19 election. As Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr said, “Most voters were able to successfully vote absentee, but not all. Marylanders should not have to wait for hours in line to vote -- especially during a pandemic, but not ever.” Aside from long lines and the lack of in-person voting options, there were also issues with voter education, ballot printing and mailing errors that state officials must immediately address.
Washington, D.C. also experienced issues with long voting lines compounded by a last-minute curfew imposed in response to the police brutality protests. The curfew overlapped with voting hours, confusing voters and likely causing some to stay home all together.
An analysis of state voter files showed that Maine has experienced the biggest slowdown in voter registration in the country. Due to the pandemic, 27 states are seeing a slowdown in registration, with Rhode Island being the only exception. While this overall trend might be due to the fact that some of the states have already held their primary elections, it’s concerning for Maine because the state does not have an online voter registration option, which advocates are calling for.
Gov. Mike Parson said last week that if voters are concerned for their health, “don’t go out and vote” in Tuesday’s local elections. In other words, he presented a choice between Missouri voters exercising their right to vote and their health, which is unacceptable. Currently, Missouri requires an excuse to vote absentee. However, there is a bill on the governor’s desk that would make COVID-19 a valid excuse to vote by mail in the November election.
Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, is sending ballots to all registered voters ahead of the June 9 primary. While we’ll know more about how well this strategy worked when the elections happen next week, local elections officials should be doing all they can to expand voting by mail to promote safe secure elections.
An Ohio House bill has been introduced that, if passed, would stop the state from sending absentee ballot applications to all registered voters (a practice that has been in place since 2008) and eliminate early voting in the three days leading up to Election Day. Both proposals would likely increase crowding at polling places and thus increase the danger of spreading COVID-19.
U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.
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