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U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates are working to ensure that every eligible American voter has the ability to participate in democracy, even during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We’re calling on states to start preparing now to ensure safe elections in November, including emergency expansion of vote by mail, sanitized and socially-distant polling places and other measures.
This weekly update highlights the work we’re doing on the COVID-19 voting front, and other important developments in the news. If you have questions or comments, please email Joe Ready (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Ross Sherman (email@example.com).
The Student PIRGs joined a nationwide effort this week to turn out the youth vote in the November election. Democracy Summer, led by Rock the Vote, launched Thursday and aims to register and mobilize 200,000 new voters. The Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project has already started some of that work this summer, hiring 200 student leaders in 15 states who have been registering, educating and contacting thousands of their peers about voting in state and local elections. Students have held online events with secretaries of state to emphasize the need to vote safely during COVID-19.
To accommodate the dramatic increase in voting by mail predicted for November, the U.S. Postal Service will need to be adequately funded and staffed. As we’ve seen in several of the recent primary elections, a cash-strapped and understaffed USPS has led to delays in voters receiving ballots, ballots being misplaced, and ballots being delivered after the election deadline. First and foremost, Congress must pass emergency legislation to fund the Postal Service, because our democracy depends on it. Additionally, because of the delays we saw in the primaries, states should push back their deadlines for receiving ballots in an election. If a voter puts their ballot in the mail before election day, it should count.
And even as states reopen, it’s crucial to remember that no one knows what November will look like. Every state still needs to prepare so that people have options to vote safely during the pandemic, and effectively communicate any new processes with voters. But in the meantime, there are steps everyone can and should take now to minimize the risk of participating in democracy.
Gov. J.B. Pritzer signed Illinois’ vote-by-mail bill into law this week, which will help minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. The state will now send absentee ballot applications to all recent voters, extend early voting hours, and recognize Election Day as a state holiday. Illinois PIRG supported the bill.
Georgia officials are trying to avoid a repeat of the state’s primary elections, which featured hours-long lines, limited polling locations and voter machine malfunctions (though turnout records were still broken). Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced this week that he would not send absentee ballot request forms to active voters for the general election. Instead, his office will create an online portal where voters can request absentee ballots themselves and help to ensure polling locations are staffed and can stay open. While overdue, allowing Georgia voters to request their ballot online is a positive step forward. However, the secretary and state elected officials can and should do much more to ensure safe and secure voting in November.
The state’s largest county, Jefferson County, only has one in-person polling place open for early voting and Election Day. Kentucky’s primary is on Tuesday, June 23, and early voting started Monday. The state did relax its absentee ballot rules during COVID-19, and about half of the voting population of Jefferson County has requested an absentee ballot. However, sufficient in-person locations must be kept open to prevent unnecessary crowding and the possible spread of the virus. One is not enough.
New York is seeing a huge spike in absentee ballot requests after Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded voting options in response to COVID-19. More than one million absentee applications have already been submitted, nearly ten times the number that were counted in the 2016 primary. As a result, though, some election offices are struggling to keep up with the demand.
Ohio has approved funds to mail every registered voter an absentee ballot request form ahead of the November general election. Money will also be dedicated to maintaining in-person polling locations, providing personal protective equipment, and other steps to help ensure safer pandemic voting.
As COVID-19 infections climb, court battles continue over the state’s restrictive absentee voting policies. Most recently, Texas Democrats asked the U.S. Supreme Court this week to reinstate an earlier ruling which would have allowed all Texas voters to vote by mail if they were concerned about contracting the virus. Currently, only people who are over 65 or currently sick or disabled are eligible to vote absentee.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission voted unanimously on a plan to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, except for those who have already requested a ballot or those who are believed to have moved. The application will come in the mail with instructions about how to request absentee ballots in person or on the state’s online portal.
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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