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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).
Voting is the bedrock of our democracy, and elected officials should be doing all they can to make voting easier, safer and more secure. But in the past week, President Trump has said that voting by mail presents the biggest threat to his reelection (even though it doesn’t help one party more than the other), pushed an unfounded theory that foreign governments would print millions of counterfeit ballots to interfere with our election, and repeated easily-debunked claims about voter fraud. Fortunately, Republican election officials in the states are largely ignoring this rhetoric, and along with their Democratic counterparts, are taking steps to help ensure smooth, safe COVID-19 elections. It remains to be seen to what extent irresponsible attacks might derail bipartisan efforts to encourage more people to vote by mail to protect public health. We’ll continue working with our state affiliates to maintain the health of our democracy and all Americans.
Also, as the nation’s largest and most diverse group of potential voters, we know that young people will have the opportunity to shape the upcoming election. The Student PIRGs launched the New Voters Project (NVP) this week, aiming to register tens of thousands of young voters for November. More than 300 student interns and volunteers will join NVP this summer, working in more than 15 states to make it easier and safer for their peers to vote during COVID-19.
Finally, a new report out this week emphasizes the importance of maintaining sufficient, sanitized and socially-distant in-person polling locations during COVID-19. Some voters, including people with disabilities, need to vote in person or tend to do so at higher percentages. Closing polling locations can lead to unnecessary crowding and a higher risk of spreading COVID-19. Election officials should take proactive measures to help ensure polling places aren’t closed, including hiring younger poll workers who are at lower risk from COVID-19.
Tuesday’s Primary Elections
Three states, Kentucky, New York and Virginia, held their primary elections Tuesday. With huge influxes of absentee voting due to COVID-19, many races have yet to be called. It’s worth emphasizing that delays in election results are not a bug, but an acceptable result of more people participating in democracy safely amid a pandemic. As an op-ed said this week, “Be patient on election night 2020. Counting the returns will take time.”
In Kentucky, many -- including U.S. PIRG -- voiced concerns about the fact that there was only one in-person polling location in the most populous county. In response to COVID-19, Kentucky elected officials relaxed absentee voting rules and many residents took advantage. With absentee votes alone, the state appears poised to eclipse typical primary turnout. But as we’ve seen in other states this primary season, there were reports of ballots not arriving on time and long lines. And as we said last week, one polling place is not enough. For November, the state must continue to allow anyone to request an absentee ballot and maintain enough easily-accessible in-person locations.
And in New York, even as more absentee turnout records were broken, there were also widespread reports of ballots that never arrived and confusion at the polls. While some of these issues can be viewed as expected growing pains related to a changing election system during COVID-19, communication and execution must be improved immediately for November.
A lawsuit filed this week seeks to make Arkansas a no-excuse absentee voting state for the November election. Most states have no-excuse absentee voting, which allows voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason. The suit urges the court to strike down the excuse requirement, or declare that fear of contracting COVID-19 is a valid excuse to vote absentee.
One of five states that conducts its elections by mail, Colorado is approaching its first round of COVID-19 voting. Early voting started this week for the June 30 statewide primary election. While at least 97 percent of voters mail their ballots in or drop them off at approved locations, elections officials are still preparing for in-person voting and taking the necessary virus precautions. Ross, who lives in Colorado, mailed in his ballot from Maine last week and writes about how effective communication from Denver’s election office is crucial.
Legislation advanced through a House committee Wednesday that would prohibit election officials from mailing absentee ballot request forms to voters. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger did just that ahead of Georgia’s primary election earlier this month, and more than half of voters cast their ballot absentee. Voters can still request absentee ballots themselves for any reason, but preventing counties from mailing applications risks unnecessary crowding at in-person polling locations.
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