Tuesday, April 21, 2020 | 2 a.m.
A new normal is upon us, due in no small part to President Donald Trump’s failure to prepare the country for the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak has quickly devolved into a crisis of unprecedented proportions.
There’s no telling when conditions will be safe enough to return to some resemblance of life as we once knew it. In the meantime, we all share a collective responsibility to follow the advice of medical experts and stay home for Nevada so we can reach those conditions as quickly as possible without overwhelming our already strained health care system.
A crisis that does have quite a lot of precedent, however, is the scourge of voter suppression initiatives that have adapted with surprising efficiency to our current public health emergency. As we witnessed only weeks ago in Wisconsin, conservative state legislators pulled out all the stops to ensure voters were forced to make the choice between their personal safety and exercising their right to vote. This was only the latest example in a shameful trend spearheaded by Republican lawmakers since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.
The situation in Nevada is a little different. With our primary elections approaching quickly, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske announced a shift to a vote-by-mail system. To Cegavske’s credit, vote-by-mail is a helpful tool during a pandemic, as it allows Nevadans to vote from the safety of their own home as we all continue to practice social distancing.
But the devil is in the details. The secretary said that not every eligible voter would receive a ballot, that her office wouldn’t take the time to confirm or update addresses, and that the only alternative to voting by mail would be to visit the one designated vote center in that voter’s county of residence.
Are you registered to vote, but haven’t voted in the past few elections? You may be listed as “inactive” and may not receive a ballot in the mail. If you haven’t updated your address on your voter registration, guess what? You’re not getting your ballot in the mail.
A vote-by-mail-only system also runs the risk of disenfranchising people of color. In California, where an expansive vote-by-mail option exists, a study from the 2016 presidential election found that Latino voters were 11% less likely than white voters to vote by mail. The same study found that black, Latino and Asian voters all had less trust than white voters that they would receive their mail-in ballot. Another study from the past two presidential elections in Florida found that mail-in ballots belonging to black or Latino voters were twice as likely to be rejected for signature mismatches and other clerical errors, creating a lack of trust in such a system.
This data shows that there are gaps that exist for accessibility for vote-by-mail systems for communities of color, with the alternative being to show up at the one vote center in their county to cast their vote. Public health data is already showing people of color are overrepresented in COVID-19 cases due to inequalities in our health care system. I doubt the secretary of state could abide thousands of voters clustering at these solitary vote centers, creating long lines that not only discourage people from voting but put the health and safety of both voters and poll workers at risk.
Problems abound when voting is reserved for one group of people at the exclusion of others. The organization I lead understands this, which is why we worked closely with legislative leaders and our allied organizations and advocates comprising the Let Nevadans Vote coalition last legislative session to pass several game-changing voting rights bills. The flagship of this set of legislation was Assembly Bill 345, sponsored by Speaker Jason Frierson, which created a same-day voter registration system, in addition to strengthening the online voter registration system and giving county election clerks more flexibility in managing their vote centers. All of this was to combat voter suppression and ensure that no eligible Nevada voter would have his or her voice left unheard.
While everyone who can should vote-by-mail, it’s not going to be an achievable or realistic option for many people. Accessible in-person voting options must be expanded to include more vote centers, in addition to verifying that addresses are up to date, creating signature-matching operations, and translating mail-in ballots into different languages.
Vote centers can operate safely and securely by ensuring proper sanitization, and spreading out so as to avoid drawing every eligible voter in the county to one location. The secretary of state should lean on the new tools the Legislature provided her office this past session to run our primary election and avoid disenfranchising any eligible voter.
Annette Magnus is executive director of Battle Born Progress, a progressive advocacy organization.