International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman
Emerging Voices /09 May 2020

COVID-19 Will Suppress the Vote in November

The coronavirus pandemic could severely impact the 2020 presidential election in November. While turnout totals could be disastrous in November, a lot of uncertainty looms for states that postponed their March and April presidential primaries for the summer months.

While the focus has shifted from the contested 2020 election to COVID-19, the two topics will eventually cross paths at some point this year and impact the vote in battleground states like Florida, Arizona, and Michigan, where every vote matters.

Ohio was the first state to move their primary from the original date of March 17 to April 28, per the request of Governor Mike DeWine citing the pandemic. Despite voters being informed that they can fulfill their civic duty by mail, Ohio saw a massive decline in total votes during this year’s primary.

According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office, 1.76 million residents mailed in their ballots, which is roughly 23% of registered voters.

Likewise in Wisconsin, a rather alarming decline in voter turnout was noticed during their presidential primary on April 7. Wisconsin was the only state during the heightened peak of the coronavirus pandemic to allow residents to vote in person utilizing safety precautions, despite being advised to postpone their election.

According to the Elections Commission of Wisconsin, 1.55 million people cast their ballots in 2020, while 2.1 million people voted in the state’s 2016 presidential primary. That is a 27% decrease in a critical swing state.

“Each voter should make an informed decision as to whether they want to vote by mail, or in person, pending public health guidance and their own assessment of risk,” said Laina Reynolds Levy, Director of Communications and Development at VoteRiders. VoteRiders is a non-partisan organization that educates and assists voters to obtain their voter ID for national and local elections.

While elections in November have not been the priority focus in recent months, VoteRiders is preparing the level of concern regarding voting and dealing with the fear of COVID-19 in the fall. Levy added, “We will be dealing with voter fears, confusion, and lack of preparedness related to this pandemic for the remainder of 2020. Most states have yet to implement a truly barrier-free absentee ballot procedure in response to COVID-19.”

Besides their staff working on the ground in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, VoteRiders works with at least 435 partner organizations across the nation to promote voter registration. Among the beneficial collaboration between VoteRiders and community groups, VoteRiders spends time reaching out to millions of voters in at-risk neighborhoods to keep them up to date and informed of recent changes in voter registration, responding within hours to voter inquiries via voter hotlines, and mailing voter documents to citizens who do not have access to a printer or copier.

When asked about expectations for voter turnout in the postponed primaries that will take place in a few weeks, Levy said, “We are concerned about voter turnout this year. There are a lot of factors at work that could discourage people from voting.”

Even though the coronavirus pandemic will shelter people away from the polls, the fear of votes not being counted via mail alarms Danniella Bart of Pennsylvania. “I don’t feel safe (mailing) my ballot in. (It’s) easy to shred. I need to cast my vote in person to make sure it is counted,” said Bart.

Jesse Praier of Tennessee agrees with Bart about the importance of voting in person. “I don’t trust the mail-in ballots. It seems too easily corrupted in the mail.”

As Levy mentioned, there will be fear of catching the virus when people begin heading to the polls in person this summer, and people should be educated about ways they can mail in their ballot.

Bart disagrees with Levy about the idea of voting by mail because she claims that going to vote will be similar to the biweekly trips of going to the grocery store during the pandemic. “We do use masks and safety measures to ensure the well-being of us and everyone around us. Going to the polls is no different,” said Bart.

At the end of the day, there will be fear of votes not being counted via mail and the fear of getting sick by going to the polls, but Levy wants all Americans to know that “one-person, one-vote is the bedrock principle that will keep us united. Unequal access to the ballot box will continue to divide us. Divided we fall.”