How Southern state policymakers can strengthen democracy and protect voter health during the coronavirus pandemic
This is the final installment of a three-part series examining the economic and social conditions that impact health outcomes in Southern states, and how these conditions leave communities underprepared to protect front-line workers and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the earlier pieces of this three-part series, we described what actions are especially needed in Southern states to protect public health and front-line workers and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we highlight action that is also needed in the South to address the threats the coronavirus poses to participation in our democracy at the expense of voter and poll worker health. The country witnessed this most recently during the Wisconsin presidential primary election last week. As we describe below, Southern states already face significant challenges to democratic participation. The coronavirus pandemic further heightens the need around the country and especially in the South to address longstanding barriers to free and fair elections, an accurate count for the once-a-decade census, and a legislative process that is accountable to the communities elected officials represent.
Free and fair elections and healthy voters
Today, voter suppression, which disproportionately impacts black and brown people, comes in the form of enforcing strict voter identification laws, disenfranchising people with felony convictions, purging registered voters from voter lists, closing polling locations, and failing to provide required language assistance. In Southern states, these barriers are layered on top of the legacy of Jim Crow, which as our colleague Jhacova Williams demonstrates in her research, continues to stifle rates of black voter registration today.
The coronavirus pandemic creates additional barriers, asking voters to choose between protecting their health and their right to participate in our democracy and compromising the health and safety of poll workers during presidential primary as well as state and local elections. Today, progress for fair and accessible election reforms remains mixed. In Kentucky, the legislature overrode a veto by the governor to create a new voter identification law at the worst possible time. On the other hand, Virginia policymakers have enacted the kinds of voting reforms necessary to strengthen democracy in the wake of the crisis.Virginia’s governor recently signed multiple bills that expanded early voting, repealed voter identification laws, made election day a holiday, expanded absentee voting, and implemented automatic voter registration.
Southern state policymakers and election officials have taken some useful steps to protect public health and limit the spread of the coronavirus by postponing elections. For example, though most states in the South have already had their presidential primary elections, officials in states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia delayed theirs until June. The North Carolina Board of Elections and Mississippi Governor Reeves postponed congressional runoff elections, and other officials in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas postponed local elections. In Oklahoma, the secretary of state will identify a new deadline for collecting ballot initiative signatures once the governor indicates that the state’s emergency declaration is over.
There are steps governors, legislators, election boards, and secretaries of state can take to increase voter participation and keep communities safe, especially while social distancing guidelines are still in place. Where voting in person is the only option available, expanding early voting periods, increasing the number of polling locations to prevent crowding, providing personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies for voters and poll workers, and adjusting polling locations—for example, those located at senior centers—to protect the health of people with underlying health conditions are all critical.
Much more can be done apart from delaying elections or maintaining in-person voting when social distancing is necessary and more action in the South is needed. While none of the five states that exclusively vote by mail are in the South, policymakers or election officials may have the authority to allow voting by mail or to allow voters to submit absentee ballots without requiring an excuse. Prior to COVID-19, among Southern states, only Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Oklahoma permitted “no-excuse” absentee voting. This year, with the onset of the coronavirus, the secretary of state offices in Georgia will automatically mail registered voters their absentee mail-in ballot without requiring voters to request an absentee ballot in advance online. Alabama and West Virginia will temporarily allow absentee voting for voters who request an absentee ballot online. Virginia will do the same for elections this summer, and lawmakers in Virginia recently passed no-excuse absentee voting legislation in time for November elections. It is not yet clear if all the states with only temporary no-excuse absentee voting will continue this practice into the fall, and some efforts to allow no-excuse absentee voting in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas have already been stymied.
Additionally, voter registration policies must meet the needs of all eligible voters during this public health crisis, allowing for flexibility in the form of same-day registration and extended deadlines. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, same-day registration policies allow voters to register to vote and cast their ballot in the same day. However, no states in the South have same-day voter registration policies, apart from North Carolina, which allows voters to register in the same day during part of the early voting period, but not on election day. Most Southern states do allow voters to register online. Exceptions include Arkansas as well as Oklahoma, where election officials are gradually implementing online voter registration in phases. These online voting registration systems must be prepared to accommodate greater traffic and must be properly linked with automatic voter registration systems already in place.
These reforms are needed for fair and accessible elections always, not just in times of crisis, and all the steps above will require extensive public education to make sure that communities know their rights. Any changes to voting options and new rules must be widely disseminated and publicized and should also meet the language needs of different communities.
An accurate count for the 2020 census supports healthy communities
The 2020 census is underway. This once-a-decade population count is used to determine political representation by deciding the number of seats each state will have in the House of Representatives and paving the way for adjustments to congressional and state legislative districts based on population changes. The 2020 census will also determine the allocation of more than $800 billion of federal resources for disaster recovery, housing, food assistance, Head Start, and more.
Historically, it’s been a challenge for the census to get an accurate count among low-income communities, in particular communities of color, and households with young children. These challenges combine to make the broad swaths of the South particularly hard to count, which has borne out in the data so far. The coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate these difficulties. The challenges for getting an accurate count during the pandemic have already led the Census Bureau to ask Congress for a four-month delay in delivering required data. In the wake of these challenges, policymakers and public officials in Southern states must step up their public education efforts and encourage residents to participate in the 2020 census by mail, phone, and online.
During the crisis, the legislative process must be accountable to constituents
Many Southern legislatures have suspended their sessions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and Louisiana has even done so indefinitely. But closing doors or rushing votes is not an effective way to provide governance during a public health crisis. The crisis will create numerous legislative demands, including everything from public health needs to providing emergency assistance to impacted constituents, businesses, and front-line workers, and dealing with the sizable fiscal crunch to come. For example, the Oklahoma legislature, which had not met since March 17, was called into special session by the governor to deal with necessary legislation related to the crisis.
Some legislatures, such as Oklahoma and Kentucky, are experimenting with various way to still engage in-person voting either by proxy voting or by limiting how many lawmakers can vote at a time. These are good steps in a pinch, but not enough. Legislatures must both be available for constituent needs during this crisis and stay safe doing so. This means that state legislatures need to quickly adopt measures to allow for meeting and voting remotely. Legislatures should also maintain accountability and transparency for their constituents, by posting timely and useful information online and livestreaming their remote sessions to ensure deliberations remain in public. To hold private briefings and other meetings, legislatures should also experiment with more secure systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic will create serious challenges for maintaining a healthy democracy in a region with a long and deadly history of voter suppression. In the earlier installments of this three-part series we also described how the social and economic conditions of Southern states leave the region particularly vulnerable and underprepared to protect front-line workers and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of public investments in health resources, from the absence of paid leave policies to the decision by many state policymakers to refuse the Medicaid expansion from the Affordable Care Act, has left Southerners particularly vulnerable to the health crisis. In an economic crisis that will hit low-wage workers first and hardest, the South has higher rates of poverty, unaided by low-paying jobs and lower rates of unionization. It is therefore unsurprising that despite overly stringent Unemployment Insurance (UI) systems, seven of the 10 states with the highest percent change in UI claims relative to the pre-virus period are in the South. Each of these problems is deeply troubling, but we’ve also detailed plenty of solutions: implement paid leave policies, expand Medicaid, expand and bolster UI systems, increase aid to social services and income support programs, expand voting and voter registration options, maintain an accountable legislature throughout the crisis, and pay particular attention to the needs of front-line workers and vulnerable communities. Southern state policymakers and elected officials must step up to the scale of the crisis they face.