~ Issue recommendations to ensure that any public health measures do not stir confusion or deter voter participation ~
WASHINGTON Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) led all Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee in calling for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the National Association of State Election Directors, and the National Association of Secretaries of State to work proactively to counter any attempts to suppress vulnerable and historically-disenfranchised voters during the COVID-19 crisis.
In letters to Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband, head of the Department of Justices Civil Rights Division, and to the presidents of the National Association of State Election Directors and the National Association of Secretaries of State, the Senators affirmed that no American should have to choose between their franchise and their health, and stressed the importance of ensuring that any public health measures do not discourage voter participation or limit access to the polls for vulnerable groups, including communities of color and people with disabilities. To best ensure the safety of voters, the Senators encouraged the adoption of convenience voting measures such as vote-by-mail and curbside voting.
While precincts nationwide can and should actively encourage measures like the use of PPE, substantial sanitation and social distancing in-line with recommendations from the CDC, reasonable modifications must be made to ensure equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, wrote the Senators. For example, persons with autism are often unable to wear a mask for any extended period. In cases like this, it is critical that guidance interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act be issued to clarify that reasonable modifications must be made to ensure that social distancing measures do not serve as a barrier to the polls for individuals with disabilities.
The risk that novel procedures may deter voters is further complicated by the disturbing racial disparities in Coronavirus cases. In almost every state, evidence suggests that African Americans have been disproportionately affected by the virus, they continued. Communities of color have frequently faced active efforts to inhibit their franchise unfortunately, it is likely that there are those who will attempt to use COVID-19 safety procedures as a pretext to suppress voters and undermine the political voice of these communities. We must proactively take steps to safeguard these communities and other vulnerable groups from voter suppression and intimidation.
In their letters, the Senators noted the increased vulnerabilities facing the 2020 general election in light of the COVID-19 crisis. They highlighted delays and dangerous voting conditions reported in places like Wisconsin, where an in-person election with inadequate procedures resulted in at least 50 cases of COVID-19 during the spring primary season.
The Senators also issued a series of recommendations to prevent voter suppression. These include announcing any safety procedures months ahead of the November election, communicating voting and safety procedures in a variety of languages and formats, issuing strong privacy and security testing months ahead of the deployment of any screening tools, evaluating policies for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, ensuring that any polling places with accessibility problems are made accessible and that reasonable modifications are made to meet the needs of voters with disabilities, training poll workers on how to operate accessible voting machines and on how to interact with voters with disabilities, providing the opportunity for voters with a suspected illness to cast their ballots swiftly and securely, and conducting meaningful engagement with community leaders when determining the impact of any measures on historically disenfranchised communities.
In addition to Sen. Warner, the letters were signed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Angus King (I-ME), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tom Udall (D-NM), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
A copy of the letter to the National Association of State Election Directors and the National Association of Secretaries of State is available here.
A copy of the letter to the DOJ Assistant Attorney General is available here.