Can the rise in Mail-in Ballots Increase Voter Suppression?

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Jun. 30 2020, Published 11:44 a.m. ET

In the wake of COVID and President Donald Trump’s ever-growing animosity towards the U.S Postal Service, many officials are worried about a voter suppression catastrophe in November. Mail-in or absentee ballots are going to have to be the backbone for the elections this year, whether that be at the local or federal level. But the mail-in process is only an added layer on top of a broken election system that has suppressed voters in more ways than one. 

“We saw before COVID a very fragile and rickety election system made up of a patchwork of local election officials, volunteers – poll workers and the like – struggling under the weight of hostility that the Republican Party and Republican legislatures and Republican secretaries of state were showing toward voting,” Attorney Marc Elias told New York Magazine. “And then COVID became a pandemic in the United States, and layered on top of that base layer a whole host of other problems, [like] even fewer in-person voting locations.” 

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Elias and his team are working with Democratic Party committees and super-PACS to ensure a fair voting system. They’ve appeared in court hearings across the country and currently have at least one active case in 18 different states, six of those being core swing states. 

Aside from voter suppression laws that discount votes from those who are registered, the U.S has a huge problem with voter exclusivity. For one, if you are ever convicted of a crime, it is extremely hard to expunge your record after the fact to become a registered voter. And despite this, those previously and currently incarcerated are still counted in census data, in turn amplifying the votes of those who are in the same voting block. In some states, prison populations are used to gerrymander voting districts, spiking the population of small, predominantly white voting districts and therefore amplifying their votes.

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The more obvious acts of voter suppression happen when polling sites are shut down or moved to locations that purposefully make it harder for certain populations to vote. Back in March on Super Tuesday, Texas saw the largest voting mess we’d seen in centuries. Voters had to wait on lines until the early morning hours. The last vote was cast at 1:30 a.m by a man who waited online for more than six hours. “The way it was set up, it was like it was set up for me to walk away,” he told Dallas News

Elias’s current concern, however, is ensuring that all mail-in votes are fully accounted for. In the past, mail-in ballots were often rejected more than in-person ones. Some studies even suggest that these rejections are primarily focused on young people and minority voters, who tend to vote Democrat. Currently, Elias is fighting to secure the four “pillars” of a fair and free mail-in election. 

Two of those pillars are making sure that the ballots’ postage is free or prepaid and that votes are counted if postmarked before Election Day. Elias also believes that signature-matching laws ought to be reformed because it allows for election workers to subjectively reject ballots. Community groups should also be allowed to help collect and deliver filled out and sealed ballots. 

We have an epidemic in this country of uncounted ballots, and it’s a silent epidemic, because people don’t know their ballots, oftentimes, aren’t counted,” said Elias. “So we are creating the illusion of democracy for hundreds of thousands – or millions! – of Americans by giving them a ballot, having them mail it in – maybe they wear a sticker, maybe they don’t – but in reality their ballot doesn’t count.”

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