By Dale Ho, ACLU Director & Sonia Gill, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel
No one should have to choose between their health and their vote, but during the Wisconsin primary, an estimated 19,000 Milwaukeeans were forced to risk their health to cast their primary ballots. More than 50 Milwaukee County voters have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and were identified as having been infectious or infected at the time of voting; more than half of them had no other known possible exposure to COVID-19 other than voting.
To protect our democracy, it’s imperative that we expand early voting, allow every eligible voter to vote by mail, and reduce the logistical, financial, and health barriers that inhibit voting by mail. Currently, there are approximately 16 states that do not allow no-excuse absentee voting by mail. In a number of these states, the limitations are codified in state law or within the states’ constitution, making litigation and congressional action necessary to allow people to safely vote this election cycle. The House recently passed the HEROES Act, which includes vital measures to protect our health and right to vote. But now, it’s up to the Senate to push for these critical voting provisions in its next relief bill and members of Congress to co-sponsor Sen. Kamala Harris and Congressman Jim Clyburn’s VoteSafe Act.
At the national level, we’re calling on Congress to increase federal funding for elections administration, and to mandate national standards for no-excuse absentee voting and a minimum 14-day early vote period, to ensure that every eligible American can vote safely in November. An increase in federal resources is necessary to help states safely administer elections and process a surge of mail-in ballots in a timely and secure manner.
We are also urging municipal, local, and state-level policymakers to expand access to absentee ballots and extend early voting periods so that their constituents can either avoid physical polling locations or minimize their interactions with other voters if they choose to vote in person. Officials from across party lines have already expanded eligibility to vote by mail to all voters in a wide range of states, including Alabama, Indiana, New Hampshire, New York, and West Virginia. We’re bolstering these bipartisan efforts to expand access to vote by mail through litigation in a series of states.
In Texas, we filed a lawsuit with coalition partners, seeking to expand Texans’ access vote by mail. Two weeks later, a Texas court ruled that all registered voters qualify to request a mail-in ballot this July due to the COVID-19 public health crisis; unfortunately the Texas Supreme Court has now ruled to the contrary.
In Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina, we are similarly suing to make absentee mail-in balloting available to all eligible voters. Vote by mail will be the safest option for many during this pandemic. In response to our lawsuit, the Missouri legislature expanded access to vote by mail for all voters during 2020 due to COVID-19; the bill is awaiting the Governor’s signature. Similarly, South Carolina expanded access to vote by mail for the June primaries because of the pandemic — but has yet to do so for the general election.
We are also challenging states that have burdensome, unsafe, or financially prohibitive restrictions to voting by mail. We are suing in Virginia, Missouri, and South Carolina so that voters can vote by mail without having to get a witness signature on their ballots — an unnecessary requirement and a clear violation of public health experts’ social distancing recommendations. Because of an agreement reached with the State of Virginia, Virginia voters in the June 23 primary will no longer need a witness to sign their absentee ballot during the pandemic, if they don’t believe they can safely find one. Similarly, the Missouri legislature, citing our lawsuit, recently passed a bill that would eliminate the state’s notary requirement for voters at high risk of severe COVID-19 complications — but they have not yet done so for all voters, and so our litigation continues. In our case in South Carolina, a judge ruled that voters won’t need a witness to sign their ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and stay at home orders mean that many wouldn’t have access to a “witness.”
Beyond challenging witness signature requirements, we are in court over Georgia’s failure to provide prepaid postage on mail-in absentee ballot envelopes, and in Montana, we’re suing to ensure that all voters can get assistance when sending their ballots to election officials. In Michigan we’re challenging the state’s requirement that absentee ballots be received by Election Day in order to be counted. And in Kentucky, we’re challenging the state’s photo ID requirement for voting, because DMVs are now closed or inaccessible due to the pandemic, and many voters lack the means to include a photocopy of their IDs along with their mail-in ballots.
In this tumultuous and uncertain time, one thing we know is that we must prepare for the general election in November.
We’ll keep fighting to safeguard both the nation’s health, and our democracy.