5 Critical Facts about the Health of US Elections You Should Know

April 23, 2020 | 10:14 am
A poll worker with a face mask sorts election materials in a polling station in Wisconsin during the COVID-19 pandemic.Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The 50th Earth Day is this week, and the public rallies and events are happening entirely online. COVID-19 physical distancing will require changes in how we live at least for the foreseeable future, including  November’s general election. Unless we act quickly, the election could easily be compromised, with disastrous consequences for the environment and public health.

A safe, fair, and accessible election increases the likelihood that elected leaders will be more responsive to their constituents than special interests. So this is not a post about electing science-friendly candidates. This is a post about making sure our election system works during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recent gutting of the Voting Right Act led to more restrictive election policies in several states. The president has routinely misrepresented how elections work. And more opportunity for mischief comes from those who set up election laws and rules, not those who want to exercise their right to vote.

Here are five facts about US elections that you should know:

  1. Disenfranchisement is associated with poor health outcomes. States with more restrictive voting laws have more illness and premature death. More people get sick and more people die from environmental threats in states with more hurdles to voting and where gerrymandering is strong. Lower voter turnout is linked with poorer health and more exposure to environmental threats.
  2. Several states have passed laws in recent years to prevent students from voting. Fortunately, other states are going in the right and opposite direction, and need encouragement. And despite these restrictions, student voter participation doubled in the 2018 midterm elections compared to 2014.
  3. Students in physical science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) vote at lower rates than their peers. Those who study business, humanities, and education vote more. Don’t assume that because you vote, your peers do too.
  4. States need $4 billion to carry out a safe and fair election in November. The latest coronavirus stimulus package contained $400 million for election improvements. To date, 45 states have already applied for these funds. But experts believe states need ten times that amount to give everyone the chance to vote in November, and are working hard to advocate for it. $4 billion is less than seven percent of the $60 billion package the airlines recently received.
  5. Bipartisan support is strong for making it easier to vote. Earlier this week, Republican and Democratic leaders made passionate appeals in a live event for immediate action to secure the November election. The event was sponsored by the nation’s leading civil rights organizations, the League of Women Voters, and hundreds of other civic organizations including UCS.

Science and politics are intertwined because science is developed and used by humans. Humans decide what questions are asked, what research is funded, what data is collected, and how the output gets used. So here’s what we are asking you to do:

Register to vote. And if you have a primary coming up and are eligible and able, request an absentee ballot.

Support a functioning electoral system. Push Congress to make money available so that states can carry out safe, free, and accessible elections in the fall.

Take the Science Rising Challenge to build voter power. By participating in the challenge, you can ensure that others in your community who are eligible to vote have the opportunity to do so. And you don’t have to be eligible to vote yourself to participate.

Elected officials who are accountable will be more likely to follow the evidence if the people they represent have sufficient power to either keep them or throw them out. As the COVID-19 pandemic has made blatantly clear, good science-based policy requires leaders who are willing to follow the evidence. And a functioning election system will help ensure those leaders are in place.