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We must brace our elections for COVID-19

We at MassVOTE have been fighting for these reforms throughout the present crisis

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford

The data is undeniable: COVID-19 is hitting underrepresented communities hardest. In Boston, for example, African Americans make up approximately 25% of the population, yet they comprise nearly 40% of the city’s COVID-19 cases. Research also reveals that, alongside communities of color, immigrant populations and those living in crowded housing conditions are suffering from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates.

But it is not just hitting their health hardest. Minority-owned businesses are at a disproportionately higher risk of closing amid this crisis. This is made only more worrying by the fact that most minority-owned businesses were unable to apply for federal aid through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). These businesses either lacked the resources to apply, experienced language barriers that made applying too burdensome or were overwhelmed by the convoluted application process.

The COVID-19 crisis has not only revealed the inequalities present in Massachusetts but exacerbated them. Yet we can and must act to prevent this stratification from growing worse. In one area specifically — an area that underrepresented communities have routinely seen their interests go ignored — we can and must act.

That area? Voting rights.

Since gaining the right to vote — which often proved a long, laborious fight in and of itself — underrepresented communities have routinely seen their voices hindered at the polls. Whether it was through poll taxes and literacy tests, or gerrymandering and voter ID laws today, underrepresented communities have always had to fight to ensure their right to vote. COVID-19 presents a new set of challenges that once again risk limiting the voice of underrepresented communities at the ballot box. Forcing people to congregate in one place on election day proves a public health risk we must avert. We must not force voters to choose between their health and their rights.

The state must take a number of steps to ensure this. First, it must implement a vote-by-mail system that would see voters automatically receive a ballot for the November general election. This must include a prepaid return envelope to easily submit their ballot, as well as ballot tracking software that allows them to follow their ballot throughout the mailing process. Five states currently practice vote-by-mail in all elections, and more are following suit.

The support for vote-by-mail is there. Approximately 74% of Bay Staters support voting by mail, as do 22 mayors, 100-plus organizations, and all nine members of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation. To all of these groups, a vote-by-mail option isn’t partisan or political, but a practical method to confront the coronavirus crisis.

Yet alongside this, the state must protect the in-person voting process. The state must provide poll workers personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies. They must also expand the early voting period to limit crowding on election day and provide voters more options. Additionally, they must ensure that polling places are adequately staffed, emulating efforts like the BPS Student Poll Worker Program.

Finally, the state must remove impediments to voter registration in this unprecedented era. With in-person voter registration drives less likely to take place, the state must make the voter registration process as easy and accessible as possible. While advocacy organizations like MassVOTE will pioneer voter registration efforts through this crisis, steps like reducing the voter registration deadline will allow more voters to speak their mind this fall.

We at MassVOTE have been fighting for these reforms throughout the present crisis. We endorsed HD.5075 and testified in favor of it to the Joint Committee on Election Laws. We also testified to the Boston City Council and recommended these very reforms. Utilizing classic efforts in these unprecedented times, we are continuing to lobby legislators, partner with fellow advocacy organizations, and mobilize grassroots support.

No matter what our elections look like this fall, MassVOTE will be there to educate and empower voters. Yet voters deserve to speak their minds in the safest, most inclusive manner possible. With the COVID-19 crisis crippling underrepresented communities, it is urgent that their voices be heard at the polls this fall. We have no choice: We must brace our elections for COVID-19.

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford is the executive director of MassVOTE, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to voting rights, voter education, and social justice.

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