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Rob Schofield: The pandemic election

Rob Schofield: The pandemic election

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For a nation that has long billed itself as the “world’s greatest democracy,” the U.S. carries a lot of problematic baggage when it comes to elections.

Topping the list is how the nation has sought so effectively, right up until the present, to prevent people of color from voting. These efforts to restrict the franchise have taken many forms through the decades: from the literacy tests, poll taxes and “grandfather clauses” of the past century to the racial gerrymandering and voter ID requirements of the present era.

But even if one looks beyond the shadow that racism has long cast on the American electoral experiment, something else is clearly going on. Simply put, we Americans conduct our elections like we don’t want people to vote.

Election Day ought to be one of the holiest of national holidays — a day when everything stops so that it’s easy for all citizens to come together to decide on the kind of government they want to empower and, indeed, to celebrate democracy.

Instead, America handles voting like a trip to the dentist — painful and slightly mysterious, an appointment to be wedged in, if possible, between the other distractions of a busy work day. The entire voting process is a pain and a challenge — from the registering to knowing where and how to vote to understanding the ballots.

This is especially true in states like North Carolina that continue to treat voting by mail or — gasp, online voting! — like phenomena from a science fiction novel. In an era when a huge proportion of the population can engage in all manner of complex personal and business transactions with a few key strokes on their phones, the fact that many citizens are affirmatively dissuaded from voting by the need to travel to a polling site and wait in line and/or the confusing hassle that accompanies remote voting is increasingly ridiculous.

All of which brings us to the Great Pandemic Election of 2020. In less than three months, the U.S. will conduct what is widely seen as one of the most important elections in American history in the midst of a deadly and unprecedented public health crisis.

If ever there was a time in which officials should be urgently pursuing every conceivable avenue to ease barriers to voting, this is it.

Unfortunately, the response thus far in most places, including North Carolina, has been what might be best described as “meh.” Indeed, on a scale of 1 to 10, the state’s overall response to the situation feels like, at best, a bureaucratic 5.

On one hand, state lawmakers and election officials deserve some credit for not completely sitting on their hands. Legislators passed a bill last month that took some positive steps, including dispensing federal funds, lowering the absentee ballot witness requirement from two to one and giving local election boards additional flexibility.

And last week, the State Board of Elections followed up with some helpful actions of its own, including unveiling a new and ambitious program to recruit poll workers and issuing an emergency order that should lead to more early voting sites being available and more safety precautions being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But doggone it — this is a moment of profound and unprecedented crisis, one in which democracy itself could be in jeopardy.

As voting rights advocates have argued persuasively, other obvious steps to lower barriers to voting should have already been taken:

  • eliminating the requirement that absentee voters have their ballot return envelope signed by a witness (which jeopardizes people’s health and is required by only a small minority of states);
  • generally easing voter assistance rules for absentee ballots;
  • dramatically expanding voter registration opportunities, including waiving the requirement that voter registration applications be submitted at least 25 days before the election;
  • allowing county boards much more flexibility in setting early-voting hours;
  • guaranteeing access to personal protective equipment and “contactless” ballot drop boxes for voters;
  • including pre-paid postage for ballots to be returned by mail; and
  • establishing mechanisms to cure deficient absentee ballot requests and absentee ballots. Currently, North Carolina has no process to allow voters to appeal if their absentee ballot is thrown out as invalid, meaning potentially thousands of votes could fail to be counted with no legal remedy.

The bottom line: If there’s been a central lesson that Americans have learned from the failed national response to the pandemic, it’s the folly of defaulting to half measures in the face a dire national emergency. Now is the time to avoid such a path when it comes to preserving our democracy.

Rob Schofield is the director of NC Policy Watch.

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