At Generation Citizen, we believe that our democracy works best when everyone is prepared for civic participation in an inclusive political process. We address inequalities in civic learning by working with historically under-served youth populations in both rural and urban environments, to ensure that all students receive an effective Action Civics education..
The global COVID-19 pandemic presents potential barriers to participation in the fall 2020 elections that require more than knowledge, skills, and education to overcome. As a civics education organization that has educated and empowered more than 70,000 students since our inception, we are concerned that many of our current students and alumni may be adversely affected by these barriers. We urge state policymakers to act swiftly to prepare for the threats COVID-19 poses to the nation’s fall elections. While we hope the pandemic will have abated by the fall, action is required today to ensure that elections are as safe as possible, and that every eligible voter who wants to vote is able to do so without fear and without putting themselves at risk.
In concert with many of our colleagues in civic engagement, we urge policymakers to act on the following critical recommendations:
Expand absentee voting and voting by mail
Generation Citizen students leave the classroom with the knowledge, skills, and motivation to participate in our democracy. We want to see GC alumni who have reached voting age cast ballots this fall, but we do not want any of them to have to put themselves and their families at risk in the course of doing so by voting in person. We believe all eligible voters should have the option to vote by mail, at no cost, and therefore encourage states and local officials to act swiftly to implement or expand voting by mail.
Five states already have universal vote-by-mail, and a sixth is transitioning to it. Twenty-seven states plus D.C. allow voters to request absentee ballots without a reason. Seventeen states require voters to provide a reason to request an absentee ballot. We urge all states and local leaders to do as much as they can to maximize voting by mail. At a minimum, states that require a reason to vote absentee should eliminate that requirement in light of the crisis, as some already have.
Ideally, we believe states should proactively mail ballots to every voter and provide pre-paid return envelopes. We recognize the challenges associated with a rapid shift to widespread vote-by-mail, and encourage both states and the federal government to appropriate funding for the additional staff, equipment, and public education costs that would be incurred by such a shift. Such staffing and assistance must be provided on a uniform basis across different communities in order to avoid even inadvertent disparate treatment on partisan, racial, language, or other lines. Additional adjustments to the process for mail voting may be necessary in some states, including accepting ballots postmarked by Election Day. Recent research confirms that the effects of voting by mail are partisan neutral.
Provide protections for in-person voting and poll workers
While we encourage states to ensure all voters have the opportunity to vote by mail, we also urge state and county election officials to ensure in-person voting remains accessible and to provide proper protections for those voting in person and those working at the polls. In-person voting must remain an option for a variety of reasons, including for voters with disabilities, those who need language assistance, and those without mail access.
We encourage state and local officials to take extensive precautions to ensure polling places are safe for voters and poll workers, while guarding against long lines and confusion. These measures will look different in each state, and may include both the siting and operation of polling places. No changes should be made that run afoul of existing laws protecting voters from disenfranchisement.
Many Generation Citizen alumni and other young people are considering volunteering to serve as poll workers in the fall to help provide critical capacity at a time when a potential shortage of willing poll workers could present an additional challenge. They and all other poll workers and all in-person voters deserve to walk into their polling place with the confidence that all possible steps have been taken to ensure its safe and efficient operation.
Ensure uninterrupted voter registration
Quarantine, illness, and social distancing will severely curtail voter registration activities this year, by reducing access to government offices where registration activities occur and by eliminating in-person outreach traditionally used to give eligible voters opportunities to register. Voter registration drives led and supported by Generation Citizen students are among the activities that will likely be cancelled due to ongoing restrictions on in-person gatherings.
We encourage states to mitigate the effect the pandemic could have on voter registration by bolstering online registration systems and extending voter registration deadlines, up to and including Election Day Registration where such a shift is possible under state laws and state constitutions.
The 39 states that have online voter registration systems must ensure their systems are up to the test of higher traffic than usual. States that do not have online voter registration systems should work to establish electronic systems or procedures for voter registration to the extent possible. This could mean building a partial online voter registration system, mailing and emailing voter registration forms to those who are in a government database, consistent with the National Voter Registration Act, or establishing other procedures.
We encourage both states and the federal government to appropriate funding to support the implementation of these recommended policies around voter registration.
Communicate reliable information to voters
As schools have shifted to distance learning, the digital divide and disparities in access to information have become more apparent than ever before for voting age youth. The success of any major policy shifts to protect our elections will depend on how well they are communicated to the public. GC recommends that states and local election offices invest heavily in robust voter education efforts tied to any reform. Voter education communications should be provided in understandable terms in English and in other languages as appropriate. State and local leaders should also plan to combat disinformation about any voting rule changes, as fear around a pandemic can create an environment especially susceptible to efforts to misinform and manipulate the public for improper purposes.
For additional reading and perspectives on this topic from other organizations, see: