On Wednesday, President Trump attacked states like Michigan and Nevada for protecting voters’ from COVID-19 in upcoming elections by sending applications for absentee ballots. Voting by mail is a key way for states to protect voters’ health and safety, which states have a moral and legal obligation to do. It was yet another example of how, after decades of using tactics like voter purges and closing polling sites to disenfranchise black voters, Trump and other extremist political operatives are trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to stop as many people from voting as they can. They’ve even admitted that this is their strategy, which is why it’s so urgent that we all get serious about voter justice in our states and local communities.
We have just six months to make our elections safer before Nov. 3, Election Day. The good news is that we now have more allies than ever before. In the process of trying to keep us from the polls, The Trump administration is introducing the entire country to the kinds of voter disenfranchisement that black communities have been fighting for generations. Our community has experience resisting threats to our voting rights, so now is the time for us to lead.
Everything we need to make voting safer and more convenient already exists in this country. We just have to get the resources to the right places and ensure they’re spent on giving voters the accommodations outlined in our 2020 Voter Justice Agenda. To start, we must demand that Congress fully fund or increase the Election Resilience grants to states in the HEROES Act so that states have the funding they need to make these critical changes quickly. And voters must get registered and check their registration status, so we can get the latest election updates directly from local and state election officials.
Once we’re registered, we’ve got to start thinking about how we will safely vote. Scientists anticipate a resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall and attempts at voter intimidation remain a threat. So, the first, most urgent step is to reduce the need to vote in-person. Allowing everyone the option to vote by mail is a simple alternative to in-person voting, which already exists as a backup. States that currently require an excuse or place other barriers to absentee voting can and should waive them this year in light of the pandemic and other threats to safe voting, and allow all eligible voters to receive and return a ballot by mail using a prepaid postal envelope.
Further, to ensure no one in our community is disenfranchised because they don’t have a consistent mailing address or transportation, states must also set up secure, accessible ballot collection sites in every community where voters can pick up or drop off their ballots safely, while respecting physical distancing guidelines.
After decades of disenfranchisement, black people are understandably concerned that our votes might not be counted if we mail them in. That doesn’t mean we have to stick with an old way of voting that doesn’t serve us in this moment though. Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C., already allow voters to track the status of their ballots and ensure they are counted; we can and must come together and demand that the remaining 11 states get on board. If you live in Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, Texas or Wyoming, you can use Color Of Change’s platform to start a petition to demand this important voting right and we’ll help you promote it.
Even with these options, for some voters, voting in-person will still be the only way to ensure they have the proper access, assistance, and privacy needed to cast a ballot. Voter justice means ensuring everyone can vote safely, regardless of disability or any other factor. Election officials can make in-person voting safer by offering multiple in-person early voting locations for 30 days leading up to election day, including weekends. This will reduce crowding at individual polling places and shorten lines on election day. But even more can easily be done to protect our health and safety.. Along with taking steps to reduce both the number of people that need to vote in-person overall and at any one time, there must be proper disease prevention protocols in place to protect the remaining in-person voters and poll workers. Physical distancing, frequent disinfection of shared surfaces, and making free masks available to voters who don’t already have them will keep everyone safe. If we start preparing for these measures now, buying and dispersing the equipment, we’ll be ready in five months to open our polling locations safely.
Finally, we must acknowledge that COVID-19 isn’t the only threat to black lives this election cycle. We’re constantly reminded that the age-old threats to our lives are just as prevalent now as they ever were. So, as always, we need protection from intimidation this election cycle.
That means all polling places and their surroundings must be gun-free zones. Officials must work to prevent efforts by political operatives and extremist hate groups to intimidate or mislead black voters and suppress turnout, and prosecute people and organizations who engage in threatening election-related behavior. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have got to step up too and better protect users from organized disinformation and intimidation campaigns, which continue to disproportionately target Black activists and voters.
We have everything we need to protect our health and our votes this year. If our elected officials start now, we can expand safe voting options and get significantly closer to making voter justice a reality in every state. After Wisconsin, millions of people are finally realizing that the voter suppression experienced by black communities could also be wielded against them—and they’re also seeing that we as voters have the power to rebuke public officials who abuse their power in this way. Let’s build on that momentum to protect voting rights for everyone. Let’s take action today so we can elect leaders who won’t play deadly political games with our lives.
Rashad Robinson is president of Color Of Change, a leading racial justice organization with more than 1.7 million members that design winning strategies to build power for black communities. Rashad appears regularly in major news media and as a keynote speaker nationally. You can find him on Twitter.
Each week Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization will bring you frontline stories from #TheBlackResponse to COVID-19, highlighting the ways Black people are taking action and demanding progress during the pandemic and beyond.