Voting rights are indispensable, even in a pandemic
Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
As the nation reckons with the terrible cost of this pandemic—the loss of loved ones and unprecedented economic hardship—we must ensure that our democracy itself does not suffer irreparable harm. Given expert warnings that cases of COVID-19 will persist or even spike in the fall, and given the likelihood that physical distancing will need to continue, Congress and state governments should act swiftly to pass legislation that will safeguard our elections and make it possible for all eligible voters to cast their ballots without undermining public health.
The recent elections in Wisconsin serve as a cautionary tale to other states: Nobody should be forced to choose between their health and basic rights.
Thankfully, Massachusetts legislators are working to make sure voters do not have to face that impossible choice here. Already there are several proposals—including bills by Senator Cynthia Creem, Senator Rebecca Rausch, and Representative Adrian Madaro—that would make it easier to vote safely in the September primaries and November general election. And last week, Representatives John Lawn and Michael Moran filed a bill, sponsored in the Senate by Eric Lesser and Adam Hinds, that would enable widespread voting by mail, expand early voting, and ensure that people can safely vote in person. Together, these steps would allow as many people as possible to stay home and cast their ballots remotely, while protecting those for whom in-person voting is still the most viable option.
Expanded access to mail-in voting is a common-sense solution to protect democracy and people’s well-being during this public health crisis. Secretary of State William Galvin has already said that anyone affected by COVID-19 should be entitled to an absentee ballot; the proposed legislation would affirm that any Bay State voter can vote absentee in the fall as a precautionary measure. Importantly, the bill would also require the Secretary of State to mail every registered voter an absentee ballot for the general election. Absentee ballots would be mailed at least 19 days before the election, with return postage pre-paid and in several languages. Voters shouldn’t have to go to extraordinary lengths or put themselves or others in danger to cast their ballots.
But we can’t rely solely on absentee ballots—something the ACLU of Massachusetts made clear in a recent letter to state leaders. The Commonwealth must preserve in-person voting, in part to account for obstacles faced disproportionately by communities of color, people living with disabilities, and the elderly. Some voters, for example, live where mail delivery is not reliable or may temporarily relocate to a place in order to self-quarantine and therefore may not receive mail in a timely way. Data shows that these groups have been hardest hit by the public health crisis. We cannot make matters worse and allow vulnerable voters to be disenfranchised. We must allow for safe, accessible in-person voting.
To make in-person voting as safe as possible, we need public health protections at the polls, including plans for physical distancing and resources such as cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. But we also need to support physical distancing by spreading out voting over time. The bill filed by Representatives Lawn and Moran would expand early voting—for two weeks before the September primary and three weeks before the general election in November. This will allow voters to visit polling stations in smaller numbers on any given day and thus enable more effective implementation of physical distancing guidelines.
The ACLU is proud to work with other voting rights organizations and several legislative champions to put these issues front and center. Now, the full legislature must act quickly. We are only a few months away from Election Day, and the government is already approaching crucial deadlines to set the wheels of the electoral system in motion. Time is of the essence, and when voting rights are at stake, we should not delay.
Massachusetts has already demonstrated the capacity to lead in this crisis. The Commonwealth is home to some of the finest research and public health institutions in the country, and they have done remarkable work to curb the spread of this disease. We can and should muster that same spirit of excellence and civic commitment in order to safeguard something equally as important—our democracy itself. This year, more than ever, we cannot afford to fail.