But the system – essential for ensuring voter safety and slowing the spread of the coronavirus – is not without its faults, and these faults can disproportionately affect minority voters.
As election officials scramble to expand their absenteeism programs, voter advocates urge them to preserve adequate face-to-face voting options, specifically highlighting the barriers faced by voters of color. They also note how the postal voting systems – in particular, if implemented carelessly – tend to deprive minority voters at a higher rate than white voters.
Their concerns have already been confirmed in the few states that have large-scale postal voting programs; in many, the use of options by minority voters lags behind that of white voters.
“From our experience with voter engagement, one of the things is that there is confusion,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which mobilizes black voting around key races.
His group recently interrogates of black voters registered in the swing states and found that 4 in 10 had concerns about voting by mail, a process only 36% had experienced. Even with the pandemic underway, in-person voting was roughly linked to postal voting when investigators were asked to indicate their preferred method for the November elections.
“In some ways, you have an instinct for the challenges that make them suspicious or concerned even if they don’t know the details,” said Shropshire. “On the real side, we already know the challenges that black voters face when they vote by mail.”
The potential for racial disparities in the way email voting systems are implemented has already become a flashpoint in upcoming primaries in Ohio, Nevada and Georgia.
How to reach voters
Part of the resistance to absentee voting can be attributed to historical or cultural trends, experts say, such as the long-standing practice of “souls at the polls” of black worshipers going to polling stations after Sunday services.
“Early voting has been really, really important for African American communities by encouraging voter participation,” said Danielle Root, an expert from the Center For American Progress who worked on a recent CAP-NAACP document on the need to vote in person during the pandemic. “Eliminating all options in person therefore obviously has a negative impact on African American voters in this way.”
There is other systemic issues at stake as well. african american change your address more frequently, and they compose a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population. Fleetingness can make participation in elections by vote difficult.
Given the unreliable nature of the postal service on tribal lands, some postal voting policies present unique challenges for Native American communities.
Voting in person is also necessary for non-English speaking voters and for voters with disabilities, according to lawyers.
Referring to these populations, voter advocates criticized – and, in some places, prosecuted – election officials who sought to eliminate face-to-face voting during the pandemic because they expanded the possibilities for postal voting.
“For communities – and this is true for African American voters – who have higher travel rates and lower rates of voter use by mail, [election officials] We need to find a way to reach voters and not look frankly for ways to cut corners and, in turn, cut people out of the process, “said Hannah Fried, national campaign manager for advocacy group All Voting Is Local.
Distrust of the mail system
Election officials can either alleviate or exacerbate the problem, depending on how they implement their postal voting system. It is essential for voters, including those who do not have access to the Internet or a printer, to request a ballot, say supporters, as well as giving them several options for returning it.
“There is a lot of mistrust in the messaging system,” said Mindy Romero, a professor at the University of Southern California. His research and that of others shows that voters of color, at higher rates than white voters, cite a lack of confidence in the postal service as a reason why they do not vote by mail.
In California, where Latinos are underrepresented among mail voting users, some voters prefer to appear in person to submit their ballot by mail because they have questions about the process, fear it may be too much late or otherwise worry about the postal service, said Romero.
With regard to the process of sending ballots to voters, Georgia has been criticized for its intention to mail ballots only to registered voters on the “active” list. Among inactive voters – that is, voters who have not voted or responded to election mail in the past five years – who have not received postal ballots, 40% are not white , reports the Washington Post.
“There are ways to improve this”
Another concern is what happens to ballots once they have been received by election officials. In some places, minority voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected for problems such as mismatching of signatures or errors in the way they are filled out.
A study commissioned by the ACLU ballot rejections in Florida, where about one-third of the population uses postal voting, have found notable racial disparities in rejection rates.
“In 2016, VBM ballots cast by black, Hispanic and other racial and ethnic minorities were more than two and a half times more likely to be rejected than VBM ballots cast by absent white voters,” the study found, who also found age disparities, said.
The study’s author, Professor Dan Smith of the University of Florida, told the TPM that the level of racial disparities varies from county to county, and in some counties these disparities are virtually non-existent.
This suggests to him that the disparities are the result of differences in the way each county implements its postal voting programs, rather than the fault of the voters themselves.
This problem has also arisen anecdotally in Georgia, where Gwinnett County – a majority minority county – was the subject of litigation in 2018 over ballot rejection practices which produced a considerably rejection rate higher than in neighboring counties. According to the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under the Law, 15 percent of the postal ballots submitted by Asian voters and 8 percent by black voters were rejected by the county, compared with 2.5 percent of the ballots submitted by white voters.
A judge has ordered the county to relax some of the protocols that caused increased rejections, and lawyers are asking officials to more broadly introduce practices that give absent voters the opportunity to resolve problems on their ballots.
“There are ways to improve this,” said Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer with the Lawyers ‘Committee, involved in the Gwinnett County litigation. “The most important thing is to remove unnecessary barriers to mail voting. “