New UCS Analysis: How to Protect Democracy and Public Health During 2020 Election

July 7, 2020
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

Tragically, a breakdown in the federal disaster response has allowed the COVID-19 virus to spread across United States, resulting in one of the world’s worse death rates at the same time that we are supposed to be celebrating Independence Day. With cases continuing to rise, and only four months left to prepare for the November 2020 general election, I have joined with hundreds of the nation’s medical, public health experts and social scientists, signing this open letter, which urges our leaders to take protective action now to protect voters in November. UCS is also releasing a new analysis with the UCLA Voting Rights Project and the Voting Rights Lab, “Protecting Public Health in the 2020 Elections” to legislators, community leaders and activists across the country. While the pandemic may have kept us from celebrating the 4th as we should, we still have time to protect the foundation of our democracy.

Drawing on a large body of medical and political science, our study identifies the risk of COVID-19 infection during in-person voting, and describes the causes of voter congestion and long lines as the major threat to voters’ health on Election Day. Our analysis shows that the costs of election waiting time are not distributed equitably: urban voters, voters of color, voters with disabilities and newer voters are more likely to experience problems and long wait times. In short, many of the same voters most susceptible to higher COVID-19 death rates also experience disproportionately longer wait times on Election Day. The last section of the report provides a set of policy recommendations for Congress, state legislatures, and local election officials to implement.

UCS has also published a 50-state summary on electoral preparedness which highlights the basic protections that states need to take:

  • make registering from home easy;
  • make voting by mail easy;
  • ensure safe, accessible in-person voting;
  • guarantee an accurate and secure ballot count; and
  • educate the public on how to adapt to these changes in voting that are needed to reduce the risk of further COVID-19 spread.

Several states are working to improve electoral integrity in the face of the pandemic. The Voting Rights Lab has been tracking these changes, and you can follow how your state is responding to the crisis using their Voting Rights Tracker.

Classification of states by preparedness for holding vote-by-mail and safe, secure elections. Since the pandemic, several states have acted to improve the integrity of elections in the following three areas: Making it easier to register to vote; Making it easier to receive an absentee ballot in the mail or vote early; and improving the verification and processing of mail ballots or providing local election officials with resources to adapt early and in-person voting processing. Updated as of June 29. Source: Voting Rights Lab, UCS analysis.

What have states done so far? Not enough.

Most state efforts have focused on reducing barriers to voting by mail. Following the guidelines of many election experts, California and Vermont have ordered mail ballots to be sent to all eligible voters in order to minimize in-person voting and voter congestion. Other states have agreed to send voters applications for mail ballots, but this adds a layer of costly bureaucracy that is likely to reduce the use of vote-by-mail.

Unfortunately, states like Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi have taken minimal steps to reduce barriers to mail voting like notary and witness signature verification requirements, instead of eliminating them altogether. Other states have done virtually nothing, including several states with the lowest level of preparedness such as Indiana, Missouri and Texas. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) has gone so far as to threaten clerks in Texas counties with criminal prosecution if they expanded absentee ballot eligibility. Paxton is also leading opposition to a federal COVID-19 response, having sent a letter to the U.S. Senate, advising them to reject provisions of the HEROES Act that would increase access to vote-by-mail. Sixteen state Attorneys General signed onto that letter: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Carolina, and South Dakota.

What are national leaders doing? Speaking out.

Support for a federal response to protect our elections is bi-partisan and cross-ideological. Founder and president of Campaign Legal Center, Trevor Potter, a lead signatory on our expert letter, is a former Republican appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission and served as General Council to both of John McCain’s presidential campaigns. Other notable conservatives who are vocal supporters of expanding these election protections include Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who recently participated in a virtual town hall for the Declaration for American Democracy, and many members of the National Task Force on Election Crisis, including Mr. Potter, former FBI General Council Jim Baker, policy director for the Romney-Ryan 2012 campaign Lanhee Chen, and Michael Chertoff, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security.

Other lead signatories to our expert letter include the Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, Ross Brownson, past president of the American College of Epidemiology, Donna E. Levin, national director of the Network for Public Health Law, Kathleen Rest, former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Rogers Smith, past president of the American Political Science Association. Many of our experts, including advocates at Campaign Legal Center, Protect Democracy and the UCLA Voting Rights Project are also active in litigation to protect voters this November.

What can you do? Hold Congress accountable, and help out.

Even with all these efforts, there is no way for state officials to make this transition without the federal government appropriating necessary resources and directives. The HEROES Act provides the necessary 3.6 billion needed to ensure that every voter, regardless of where they live, can vote safely and securely this November. Even full Congressional support, while necessary, is not sufficient.

President Kennedy famously called on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Modern American elections have never faced this sort of widespread threat to their operation. Ordinary Americans need to answer the call for service this November, and everyone can serve. The first thing you can do is make sure your voter eligibility is up to date. Check out Science Rising’s new TurboVote tool. TurboVote, a tool from the nonpartisan nonprofit Democracy Works, makes it easy and safe to register to vote, request your ballot by mail, and sign up for important voting updates—and it takes only minutes.

Then, help protect the health of your community by getting the Senate to pass the HEROES Act and working with state and local election officials to implement needed reforms and educate the public to ensure that voters are informed about their options. Share our letter with members of Congress, state and local legislators. Share this video to help people understand the fixes we need to protect all voters this November. Find out more about what UCS is doing in your state and what role you can play here:

Next, encourage your state officials to allocate funding effectively and prioritize the health of voters who need it most. Keep up with how your state is handling these challenges at the Voting Rights Tracker, and help local officials adapt. Our policy recommendations include expanding points of service and providing large polling places. You can work with local officials and business owners to utilize large public and private spaces, including schools, large business properties and similar buildings where voting can be processed safely and efficiently.

Finally, you can serve your community directly by helping to staff a local polling place. Your local election officials are almost certainly facing an unprecedented shortage of poll workers this year, but if you are not in a high-risk category, you can make sure that you and your neighbors have access to a safe and secure election by signing up with WeCanVote’s Power the Polls.

Together, if elected officials, experts, advocates, and everyday Americans come together, we can protect ourselves and our democracy from this pandemic.