Strengthening Our Democracy – Safeguarding our Elections
The U.S. Postal Service should be adequately funded and safeguarded against sabotage.
An emergency situation is growing with the Trump Administration’s directed attacks on the functions of the U.S. Postal Service.
In 2006, a requirement that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) should use its revenues to forward fund employees’ health care costs imposed a heavy burden on the agency. No other federal agency is required to do this and observers have expressed concern that the requirement was made to financially weaken the USPS. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the demand for mail-order goods increased exponentially, the USPS became further stressed. It is important to note that the postal service was established in the Constitution and is seen as fundament to a functioning democracy.
A recently appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a mega donor to Trump and the GOP, began issuing a series of orders that has alarmed the general public, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and especially ordinary citizens who depend on the Postal Service to deliver their Social Security checks, prescription drugs and other critical mail. DeJoy first ordered mail carriers to depart promptly in the morning for deliveries and not return to the station to collect more mail for delivery during that day. This is resulting in a serious back-up of mail items to be delivered and does not bode well for the General Election. DeJoy has removed more than two dozen experienced USPS executives from their positions. It has been confirmed that hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of USPS mailboxes in key states have been removed and dumped. Knowledgeable sources are reporting that the dismantling is underway of perhaps as many as 600 high-speed million-dollar sorting machines which can handle up to 35,000 pieces of mail per hour. If true, this action dooms the efficient processing of mail-in ballots for the General Election.
This is Donald Trump sabotaging the General Election before our very eyes – and he has even admitted as much. Postmaster DeJoy sent a letter to all states’ election directors warning them that mailed ballots may not be received in time. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called House members back to Washington, D.C. to address this emergency. Attorneys General from New York, California, Virginia, Washington, Pennsylvania and other states are evaluating a possible lawsuit to stop the Trump Administration and Postmaster DeJoy in this destructive effort. Additionally, there is a major conflict of interest issue involved with Postmaster General DeJoy holding shares in companies that compete with the U.S. Postal Service.
More funding for the Postal Service is critically needed; the House has approved $10 billion for that purpose, but the Senate so far has not followed through. What is also needed is an accelerated effort to restore the mailboxes to their original location, re-install the high-speed sorting machines and move forward with plans to deal with an extraordinary volume of mailed ballots. An additional $3.6 billon is needed to prepare for the election during a pandemic: poll workers must be hired as many older poll workers do not want to risk their health at the polls, polling places need to be outfitted to protect workers and the public from COVID-19, stamps for ballots need to be paid for, etc. Without additional funding and election-specific preparations, tens of millions of ballots might not be received in time and could be rejected due to lateness. This problem demands a massive grassroots pushback against Trump and the postmaster general.
Voting is the central principle of a democracy; barriers that deny or discourage voters must be removed and the process modernized to increase voter participation.
Nearly all citizens age 18 and over are eligible to vote in the United States,yet for many persons access to the ballot box is limited. Voters from certain communities, historically, have faced various challenges to voting and many continue to be discouraged from exercising their right to vote as citizen. These groups include women, elderly persons, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinx, Asian Americans, college students, persons with disabilities, formerly incarcerated persons, and persons from poverty-impacted communities and persons with a language barrier.
Women should be provided several options to vote, including early voting and mail-in voting.
Women, women of color and women from poverty-impacted communities face myriad difficulties for in-person voting on the one single election day, between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. The one day for in-person voting is a serious limitation for many workers who cannot take time off to vote. In some states there is only very limited or no early voting and there are restrictions for voting absentee by mail.Among the many constraints to voting that women experience are: juggling family care responsibilities, limited affordable or accessible childcare, holding down a job and not able to take time off during the weekday, limited income, health conditions, needing transportation, and with the complication of educating children at home during the pandemic. The disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on persons of color means that those would-be voters have additional concerns about voting in person. All pose serious barriers for women in getting to a polling place on Election Day. This is to not forget to mention the risk of coronavirus exposure while standing in line for hours and interactions at the polling place. Some state election agencies have announced extensive plans to clean polling place in advance of and throughout Election Day.
Address multiple Election Day challenges by moving to mail-in ballots.
There is little doubt that the country could be facing a ‘perfect storm’ of problems on November 3rd, Election Day. Multiple complications exist that could lead to serious access problems for millions of voters. The major one, of course, is the COVID – 19 pandemic that has caused serious dislocations in primary elections held recently. The pandemic resulted in insufficient numbers of poll workers, reduced number of polling places, voters fearful of infection staying away and in-person voters waiting hours in long lines. If this is repeated in November, it could lead to an historic low voter turn-out in what many consider to be the most important election of their lives. An estimated $400 billion is needed for states to better prepare and carry out elections this year, but that amount has not yet been approved by Congress. A further complicating factor is indicated by a new policy for postal workers that is resulting in the back-up of mail to be delivered. If allowed to continue, this policy could produce chaos in an election when a majority of voters say they plan to vote by mail.
Universal, automatic mail-in balloting should be adopted by all states.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to take a pragmatic step forward in both modernizing our voting systems and opening up the process to increased voter participation through universal mail-in balloting. When one considers that voting by mail can save lives in this pandemic, the solution seems obvious and necessary. Currently, more than 77 percent of voters can access ballots by mail, primarily through an absentee voter request. Twenty states require certain stated reasons as to why voters can’t appear in person such as an illness or disability, traveling, and so forth. For states with those requirements, at least a one-time waiver from having to request an absentee ballot and provide a reason should be adopted. It is quite possible that states will grant a blanket waiver in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the U.S. Postal Service, 27 states and the District of Columbia allow absentee without having to provide a reason. Early in-person voting is permitted in 37 states and the District of Columbia.
A national policy of encouraging states to adopt a universal system of mail-in voting is preferable.
In this 21st century, the evidence is clear that the universal mail-in voting system is the best system. A ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter for every election without a request or application. The states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii and now Nevada offer universal mail-in ballot systems, automatically mailing ballots to every registered voter several weeks to a month prior to the election, with a requirement to be postmarked by election day or receipt by election day (However, with the current crisis with the Postal Service, an earlier mailing of ballots may be necessary.) Reportedly, the states of Arizona, Minnesota, Illinois and Massachusetts are taking steps to gear up for mail-in voting. Currently, 34 states will not accept a mail-in ballot if it is received after election day, while 16 states will accept later received ballots. Studies have shown that when coupled with reminder communications, mail voting systems correlate with high turnout. Voters in the mail-in voting states, it is noted, have enjoyed increased convenience and time for consideration. Although Donald Trump and others have claimed that mail-in voting is open to fraud, extensive studies of many millions of votes have shown that not to be the case. Checks of signatures on file with ones on mailed-in ballots are made and there are other security precautions that can be taken. A substantial investment of $400 billon from the federal government would aid states in moving to a universal mail-in voting system and assist them in upgrading other election capacities, such as assuring voting machine security and verifying voter rolls.
Encourage voter registration through multiple means.
To strengthen our democracy in the most fundamental way, we must assure that everyone is registered to vote. While registering at motor vehicle licensing agencies is effective, there is also a suggested automatic registration at birth that states could provide as part of the process of the issuance of the birth certificate. Additionally, colleges could provide and collect registration forms to all incoming freshmen and transfer students. And, the process of transmitting graduation documents to graduating high school seniors could be accompanied by voter registration forms. Preferably, for any and all voters online registration should be facilitated. Young voters ages 18 to 29 constitute 21 percent of the electorate and yet have the lowest voter participation. Systematic efforts to get young voters registered and voting should be a first priority for this nation as it could encourage stronger lifetime voter participation.
Federal and state election laws can require state election agencies to offer more accessibility for voters.
Among the many initiatives that would enhance voter turn-out: an increased number of polling places, longer hours, more voting booths, assistance for persons with language barriers or physical disabilities for voters to participate. An alternative idea is to offer advance in-person voting days on several weekends. Some have suggested making the day of the General Election a national holiday – that would certainly help working voters to get to the polls. Many states publish and distribute election information booklets mailed a month or so in advance of the election and /or post this information online. Also important is the provision of improved physical access for persons with disabilities plus aid for persons with foreign language or literacy issues
Voting machines must be updated, featuring a paper back-up verification system.
Twenty-one percent of all local and county election jurisdictions in 41 states have aging voting machines (10 years or older). Many jurisdictions have said that they have not been able to fund upgraded and more secure systems. There is also a need to have reliable paper back-up systems for verification purposes; many of the older voting machines do not have this capability. Further, auditing of the elections is a routine function and the recommendation is to use ‘risk-limiting auditing.’ With so many state and local governments impacted by COVID-!9 relief funding, additional help from the federal government is essential. Time to make at least some of those upgrades for the November 3rd election is running out.
States and the federal government must work together to guard against hacking and cyber-attacks.
There continues to be the ever-present danger of cyber-attacks on state election systems. In 2016, all 50 states experienced hacking or surveillance from foreign entities, as was later revealed. Again, funding assistance from the federal government has been slow in coming and it may be that state election systems are still at serious risk. It is essential that the federal government work with states to better equip them against cyber-attacks.
Restore Voting Rights Act provisions to prevent voter suppression, work to eliminate other practices that limit voter participation and properly complete the 2020 Census.
Since the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder when key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were found to be unconstitutional, various states affected by the ruling have re-engaged in widespread voter suppression. Previously, these states were subject to1965 Voting Rights Act pre-clearance requirements due to a history of voter suppression, primarily against voters of color in southern states. Pre-clearance is the process of receiving preapproval from the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Five years after the ruling nearly 1,000 polling places had been closed in the U.S., according to one study, with many of those in predominantly African American communities. There were cuts to early voting and adoption of strict voter ID laws. Some states have engaged in massive purges of the voter rolls without specific determinations on each entry, ostensibly purged because addresses were incorrect, persons had not voted in many years or were deceased. Clearly, the specific provisions of the 1965 act affected by the 2013 ruling must be restored to better protect voters in those states. An additional concern relates to the likely continuation of gerrymandered election districts, a practice that is intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries. This practice may continue following the 2020 Census. A late-breaking report that the 2020 Census may be ended by September 30, months ahead of time and before hard-to-reach communities can be counted. This could mean that Congressional reapportionment for the next decade will likely not be reflective of the actual population. The federal government must complete the 2020 Census as originally planned so as to collect as much of an accurate count as is possible.It is essential that we redouble efforts to strengthen democracy by expanding access to voting through prohibiting such barriers and abuses of our electoral systems.
Legislation to address many of the concerns outlined here has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting Senate consideration.
As time moves closer to the General Election, serious concerns are mounting that we will see a chaotic election in November. The Senate, so far, has refused to take up any of these important bills and to provide sufficient funding for states to upgrade their election processes and to safeguard election systems against cyber-attacks. Among those pieces of critically important legislation are:
H.R.1, For the People Act, passed by the House of Representatives on March 8, 2019, that addresses the many deficiencies and abuses in our electoral systems, among numerous other provisions.
H.R. 4, Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, passed House on December 6, 2019, that establishes new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changes to voting practices in these areas may take effect, plus address other aspects of the electoral process.
H.R. 6800, HEROES Act, passed the House on May 15, 2020, which provides for comprehensive relief for the COVID-19 pandemic, including funds for the U.S. Postal Service and for federal elections. Numerous provisions provide for financial aid to individuals and businesses, aid for COVID-!9 testing and tracing, and funding for an array of federal agencies and programs.
H.R. 6777, Secure Our Elections Act, introduced in the House on May 8, 2020, which would waive matching funds requirements for states that receive election security grants from the Election Assistance Commission. Such grants are available to states to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus and for the 2020 federal election cycle.
Compiled by Jan Erickson, Director, NOW Government Relations