To Mobilize Our Democracy, We Must Improve Ballot Access — On the Record

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As a lifelong resident of California, I will admit that I have taken absentee voting for granted. My parents have been voting by mail for as long as I can remember. When I voted for the first time in California’s 2020 primary elections, I proudly deposited my ballot in the mailbox. After all, as a college student studying across the country, I could not possibly vote in person.

Like any presidential election year, 2020 has been much-anticipated, chaotically eventful, and rightfully important. However, instead of welcoming a magical start to another “Roaring ‘20s,” our country is in crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed over 100,000 American lives, more than 20 million jobs, and all sense of normalcy. Furthermore, on May 25, the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd became a wake-up call that systematic issues don’t stop for a public health crisis. Recent protests across the nation have amplified the racism, inequity, and police brutality that continue to run rampant in our country. Now, more than ever, must we mobilize our democracy in the way we as Americans know best: voting.

Sadly, disenfranchisement plagues the history of voting rights in our country. Living in a country that began by granting voting rights exclusively to the upper echelon of white, land-owning males, we would be lying if we did not recognize the progress we have made. The Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 prohibited voter discrimination by “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the Nineteenth Amendment of 1920 granted women’s suffrage, and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment of 1971 lowered the voting age to 18. Yet, no amendment could change stigmas and systems overnight: in practice, the Fifteenth Amendment only enfranchised African American males who were lucky enough to overcome social barriers and reach the ballot box. Each anniversary of these amendments’ ratification, we celebrate our forward-looking nation — 2020, of course, marks 100 years since women (half of the population) received the right to vote. Nevertheless, we would also be naive if we failed to recognize that, despite the battles we have won, many more still lie ahead. The coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed previously hidden layers of our country’s widening socio-economic gap, has created a barrier to voting that our country cannot afford to ignore.

In response to the rapid increase in coronavirus cases across the country, coupled with a severe lack of testing, state and local governments across the country have implemented social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Voting in person, with long lines, large crowds and limited space, does not illustrate an ideal scenario in which one can safely comply with such health precautions. However, voting is a civil right, and we must take all steps possible to guarantee ballot access for every American citizen in November.

When lawmakers began discussing the need to adopt mail-in voting systems to avoid the dangers of the pandemic, the president vehemently attacked such proposals, attempting to invoke fears of voter fraud and rigged elections. However, such voter fraud is exceptionally rare. An investigation by the Washington Post found only four documented cases of voter fraud in the 2016 election. With millions of votes cast, this comes out to a whopping 0.000002 percent. Extensive research by the Brennan Center for Justice has concluded that most issues could be attributed to clerical errors or mismatched data. In other words, one is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud.

Further research supports this conclusion. A published in early 2020 by the American Political Science Association estimates that only 0.02 percent of all votes cast in 2012 could be double votes. A 2014 Harvard on the statistical error in calculating voter irregularities indicates that “the likely percent of non-citizen voters in recent U.S. elections is zero.” Despite this research, the president and many of his Republican colleagues continue to feed the narrative that voter fraud is a wide-spanning issue that can only be solved by limiting people’s right to vote. Nonetheless, analysis of voter data from 2000 to 2010 by the Republican National Lawyers Association in 2011 that 21 states had only one or two convictions for some form of voter irregularity — a weak case for the pervasive concern that is voter fraud.

In a 2018 from Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the chair and vice-chair of President Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, respectively, Dunlap reported that, despite reviewing all resources available to him, “the sections on evidence of voter fraud [were] glaringly empty.” Instead, Dunlap believed that the commission’s objective was “aimed at…ratifying the President’s statements that millions of illegal votes were cast during the 2016 elections.” He emphasized that any evidence used by the White House to prove the occurrence of voter fraud “does not exist.” Trump disbanded the commission before it could publish more concrete findings.

Given that the expansion of voting rights indicates increased ballot access to previously disenfranchised persons, those opposed to mail-in voting may fear that directly sending ballots to households may increase turnout among groups whose ballots they do not wish to receive. This fear generally exists more commonly among Republicans , but, in the most recent special election of my state’s 25th congressional district this past May, Republican Mike Garcia beat Democrat Christy Smith by a wide margin of about 10 percent, all with mail-in ballots.

Of course, the modern-day issue of voter access did not start with the coronavirus pandemic. For decades, many states have tried and succeeded to implement voter ID laws, requiring voters to present identification before voting. In theory, there should be no problem with asking for identification before voting, but, in practice, these efforts have created unnecessary (yet perhaps purposely orchestrated) for people of color and those with lower incomes who either do not possess such identification or may not be able to take time off of work (and sacrifice hourly wages) to obtain one. Voter ID laws have proven to disproportionately affect black, Latino, and elderly voters , and they have caused much political strife. In today’s world of COVID-19, social distancing guidelines protect the public health of all communities. However, if governments reject the use of mail-in voting options for the 2020 presidential election, already marginalized populations will be forced to bear the brunt of disenfranchisement, again.

To mobilize our democracy, we must improve ballot access. All voters deserve the opportunity to cast a ballot — during this pandemic or not and regardless of party affiliation. Research from Stanford University demonstrates neutral partisan effects from a nationwide vote-by-mail program. At the same time, Professor Nathaniel Persily even suggests that Republicans may receive a greater advantage from universal mail-in voting. Recent polls indicate that there is widespread, bipartisan support for allowing voters to vote by mail if they so choose.

Anecdotes are not data, and we must trust data. There is far from enough evidence to validate the fear of widespread voter fraud, so we should stop dwelling on possibilities whose impact is not worth risking our public health. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike deserve a fair chance at voting come November, so states must allocate sufficient funding to ensure that every citizen has the option to vote by mail in 2020. The coronavirus has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives — voting cannot be one of them. To ensure both public safety and every citizen’s right to vote, we must adopt the simple solution: voting by mail. I know I will be.

Originally published at https://ontherecordgu.com on June 16, 2020.

Southern California native studying International Politics in Washington, D.C. Passionate writer in political, cultural, societal, and international affairs.

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