Op-Ed: Keeping Democracy Alive During the Pandemic

League of Women Voters of New Jersey's Jesse Burns and The Institute's Henal Patel write

New Jersey, like the rest of the nation, is faced with an immense challenge: safeguarding our democracy while protecting public health. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for voters, and we must execute a multipronged approach to ensure access to the ballot. Fortunately, we have the necessary tools to accomplish this. Last week, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and the ACLU of New Jersey sent a letter of recommendations to the governor and secretary of state laying out steps that must be taken in order to ensure that our upcoming elections are successful and robust, even during the current crisis. Every vote counts and must be protected. Our recommendations focus on protecting those who are historically marginalized at the polls, such as communities of color and the disability community, to ensure they have multiple options to cast a ballot.  

Voting begins with registration, and in a historically important election year, we are significantly limited in how we can register to vote in New Jersey. The spread of COVID-19 in our state has meant that organizations like the league and many others have had to cancel voter registration drives and events. The Motor Vehicle Commission being closed means automatic voter registration (AVR) is not an option. Currently, the only way to register to vote is to print out a registration form and put it in the mail — a challenge for people who do not have printers at home. The public-health crisis also happened just as 83,000 people on parole and probation finally had their right to vote restored through the advocacy led by the institute and its 1844 No More campaign. People long denied the right to vote are now hampered by the difficultly of registering. 

This is why we have recommended additional resources such as online voter registration (OVR) be set up as soon as possible. In January, after our advocacy, OVR became law here, but the law does not go into effect until this summer. It needs to be sooner. We also recommend relaxing our 21-day registration deadline. With people around the state social-distancing, quarantining and, sadly, at hospitals, arbitrary deadlines are particularly egregious. We must allow people to register on Election Day, as many other states do. 

Democracy must be accessible to all

We must also make democracy accessible to everyone, while maintaining restrictions in place for our safety. In order to do this, we should encourage and expand vote-by-mail while minimizing the risk of ballots being rejected. As the governor rightly included in Executive Order 105, all voters should have ballots mailed to them with clear instructions. The ballots must include prepaid postage — requiring people to pay for postage would be a poll tax. Ballots and instructions must be sent in all relevant languages as required by the Voting Rights Act. Additionally, people must be provided options for requesting replacement ballots and should be able to easily track their ballots so they can trust the process. 

But vote-by-mail is not an equitable solution for all, including voters with certain disabilities; voters that need language assistance; voters without mail access, including more transient populations; voters that need to cast provisional ballots; voters displaced from their homes because of COVID-19 and voters that need additional assistance casting a ballot. Simply put, certain voters will be disfranchised in a strictly vote-by-mail system if in-person voting options aren’t also made available. We can have in-person voting while keeping everyone’s safety in mind. All in-person polling places and equipment must be sanitized and follow CDC guidance. Social-distancing protocols should also be in place and followed. 

In-person voting also offers other safeguards, such as allowing people to cast provisional ballots — crucial for ensuring that every vote counts. For the same reason, a sufficient number of Election Day judges must be available so that voters know that their fundamental right to vote will be protected. 

In an age of deliberate misinformation campaigns, voter education has never been more important, especially as people are understandably confused about procedures in light of the public-health crisis. Early, consistent and clear communication must be prioritized both to elected officials and to the public. The public must know that our government is committed to protecting our democracy. The secretary of state’s website, like the Department of Health’s website, should have clear, accessible information as we get closer to Election Day and must be updated regularly. 

This virus is highlighting our country’s vast disparities. Lives are being lost, millions of people have lost their jobs, economically disadvantaged children are struggling to access food and education, families are finding it unmanageable to balance child care with work responsibilities, communities of color are being further marginalized and many people are one paycheck away from devastation. These tears in our safety net can be dire for the most vulnerable among us. Access to the ballot, and their voices in the decisions that impact them, cannot become another victim to this pandemic.

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