Elections in the Era of COVID-19
How we can vote without killing ourselves — and ensure every vote counts!
April 2, 2020
by Greg Palast and Nicole Powers for Igniting Change
COVID-19 has caused eleven states to reschedule their elections. Several more are still scheduled to be held this month. As states attempt to figure out how to safely run elections in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, many see voting by mail as the solution, but there are pitfalls.
In this interview with civil rights leader and Igniting Change host Barbara Arnwine, first broadcast on NewsTalk 1450 FM on March 31, investigative journalist Greg Palast says that rather than creating a precedent for cancelling elections, we should embrace mail-in ballots so we can vote without the risk of dying. However, he also explains that we need to make urgent changes to our voting system to make sure every mail-in ballot counts — and breaks down what those essential changes are.
Barbara Arnwine: Let’s talk about what’s going on with vote by mail.
Greg Palast: Look, we may have to vote by mail or we die. The real issue now is how do we protect our vote? When we talk about vote suppression, if you want to suppress the black vote, the minority vote, the young vote, the best way to do it is to go vote by mail. All the go-postal people do not tell you that.
According to the Elections Assistance Commission, 512,000 ballots were mailed in and rejected — a half a million ballots. The chance your ballot will be rejected if you are mailing in your vote is about 284% higher if you’re African American, about 300% higher if you’re Hispanic, and a similar number if you are Asian-American. If you’re young, forget about it, your chance of having your mail in ballot rejected is far higher than for someone over 65.
Senator Amy Klobuchar has put in a bill to expand and make it easier to do mail-in voting. They’re all going crazy about mail-in voting. But in their world it’s as simple as pick and lick. You know, you pick your candidate, you lick the envelope, you send it in. Well, in Amy’s own state of Minnesota and in Wisconsin, which is the key swing state, in order to vote you have to have a registered voter or a citizen witness your ballot. Six states required ballot witnessing. Now, how do you do this during a lockdown? Members of your family can’t witness your ballot. So you have to have someone break the embargo, come into your home, or otherwise meet them and touch the ballot that you and who knows who else have been handling. It’s very difficult and people aren’t going to do it. And for younger people and others such as the disabled this is going to be murder, getting someone to witness your ballot in Wisconsin or in Amy’s own state of Minnesota.
She has points in her bill to protect the mail-in vote from Russian interference, as if Putin is going to start mailing in his ballot. But they don’t say anything about the requirements in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and four other states for a witness, which is just madness. And in some states, like Alabama, you have to have your ballot notarized. NOTARIZED!!! How do you get to a notary? In most states they’re closed. How do you get your mail-in ballot notarized? There has been no attempt to overcome these impediments.
And finally, the most important thing, now here’s the big number; according to an MIT / Caltech study called “Losing Votes by Mail”, 22% of all mail-in votes are lost. TWENTY-TWO PERCENT!!! One out of five ballots. If it were random, we can live with that. But it’s not. According to MIT and all the other studies that I’ve seen, including the Congressional Research Service, it’s about three to 10 times more likely that minority and young voters will lose their vote by mail. One of the biggest single reasons is that if you don’t get your ballot, if it’s not mailed to you, you can’t mail it back. That’s pretty simple.
The state of Ohio refused to send out 1,039,000 requests for mail-in ballots. Because first you have to get a card, you have to fill in the card, return the card, then get the ballot in time, and return the ballot in time, and they simply refused to send out 1 million requests for absentee ballots for people who are on their so-called inactive lists. If you didn’t vote in a couple of elections, according to them, you were put on the inactive list — and that list is at least 20% wrong in most states.
We’ve also had mass purges. 17 million people — SEVENTEEN MILLION — according to the Elections Assistance Commission, which is often quoted by the Brennan Center. 17 million people have been purged from the voter rolls in the past two years. Most of those have no idea that that’s happened and they will not get their ballot. If they request it, they won’t get it. So this is a massive, massive problem. I’m not saying don’t vote by mail, because we may have no choice. But I’m telling you right now, you better figure out how to protect your vote. And it’s really aimed at the minority vote.
In Wisconsin, the new Democratic Governor has taken the reluctant position that they should take the April 7 primary that’s just in a week. The Republicans won’t delay it. They would rather have people stand in line and die so they can go ahead with their election on April 7 — that’s the Republican party. Why is the Republican party so concerned about going ahead with the Democratic primary? The answer is, in Wisconsin there’s a Democratic presidential primary, but that’s kind of closed out because there’s no students left in Wisconsin. They were all sent home so Bernie’s out of the race. But what the Republicans care about is that while it’s a primary for the Democrats, it’s also the general election for the Wisconsin state Supreme Court, which is right now controlled by a bunch of Republican hacks…
In Wisconsin, the issue is who controls the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. That will be on the ballot. The Republicans in the rural areas are still able to go to polling stations and do early voting and have plenty of social distancing. But in Milwaukee, people are scared to line up at the polls. They had three early polling stations for the entire city of Milwaukee, so people did not come out because they would have to stand in line for an hour right next to other people. People aren’t crazy, they don’t want to endanger themselves. Plus, they can’t get enough poll workers to open the polls because most poll workers in America, 75% are 60-plus, and they shouldn’t even be poll workers at this time because of the dangers presented to the older population by COVID-19. So they couldn’t even get people to man the polls.
There’s supposed to be 180 polling stations in Milwaukee. They can’t do that. So the governor has reluctantly said, if we have no other choice, let’s switch to all mail, but send every voter a ballot. And this is the big issue, which Amy Klobuchar’s bill does not touch: You have to get a ballot to vote. And students, renters, low income people move around all the time, just down the street, even within their building — how do they get their ballot? So this is a dangerous, dangerous thing to switch to all mail-in votes.
Arnwine: What should people be doing? What should people in the legislators in their states be doing to remove barriers that are created by vote by mail? What are some of the things that we should all be advocating for right now?
Palast: We have to get rid of any requirement by those six or eight states that you have a witness or that you actually have to have the ballot notarized. If 40 states in America can do without witnesses and notarization, why can’t this handful who make it ridiculously difficult to vote and even force people to break the quarantine to be able to vote. Those requirements are simply to stop voter impersonation fraud and there’s literally been four cases in the past decade out of a billion votes cast — and they were not mail-in ballots. So it’s ridiculous, it’s to stop a fraud that doesn’t happen.
In addition, some states like Wisconsin and others, require voters to mail in a photocopy of their ID. Understand, Kinko’s is closed, so if you don’t have access to a printer, it’s impossible to comply. And you have to right ID. Going back to the key swing state of Wisconsin, they have 182,000 students in the University of Wisconsin system. You have to have a state photo ID to vote in Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin photo ID does not qualify for voting. They said, students can simply go into their Dean’s office to get the voter ID. But, guess what? The schools are closed. So voter ID is obviously a new Jim Crow tactic, because we don’t have people impersonating others. There should be no requirements in any state to mail in an ID or a copy of an ID. If people sign a ballot under penalty of perjury and they lie about it, that’s five years in prison. That’s one of the reasons people don’t do it,
The third thing is that no one should be denied a ballot because they are on the so-called inactive list. According to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, you can’t lose your vote for not voting. It’s called the failure to vote clause. They are deliberately violating this law in Ohio and a lot of other states — Georgia’s announced they’re going to do the same thing — by saying that if you’re on the inactive list, you don’t get a ballot even if you requested it.
No one should be denied a ballot because they’re on an active list. No one who’s been supposedly purged in the last two years should be denied a ballot. Those are the things that we should put in the law to begin with.
The other thing is eliminate things like exact signature match. We have this crazy business in about half the states were when you send in your mail-in ballot, they check your signature against your registration signature, and some partisan official says, oh, that matches or that doesn’t match.
Arnwine: It’s not even that they’re partisan, they’re not trained to know how to match signatures. These are not professionally trained people. It’s like anybody who comes off the street, literally, matching signatures.
Palast: And there’s something else to it. Again, I go back to why do we have this signature match? The idea is to prevent someone from stealing your ballot, filling it out, and signing your name on it to steal a vote. Well, this has been tested so many times by Professor Lorraine Minnite of Rutgers and others, we don’t have people doing that. It is so rare and the people that do that do get caught — it’s like a couple in the last decade, that’s it! And believe me, with the signature match game, the people that are doing this type of stealing, the very rare cases, they know how to forge a signature.
Arnwine: What are some other things that we want to make sure policy-wise is changed?
Palast: Postage.In half the states you have to put a stamp on your ballot, though I will say, Amy’s bill does say that it has to be postage paid.
Arnwine: But that’s just a proposal. It’s not law yet. Let’s talk about what the law is currently. We have states currently that require you to put postage on and they don’t provide free postage.
Palast: Well, first of all, you have to go out and get the stamps — without breaking quarantine? But the biggest problem is that most states don’t tell you that your typical ballot requires two stamps. So for example, in the state of Ohio, tens of thousands of people lost their vote because there’s a little square that says put in postage showing a place to put a stamp. But you have to put on two stamps cause it costs more than announced for most of these ballots.
You have over 100,000 Americans losing their votes because of postage due. It’s insane. So we have to have postage prepaid envelopes for returning the ballot. Half the states do that. So money from the CARERS Act package that was passed by Congress should be used first and foremost for postage paid return envelopes for all your mail in ballots.
HOW TO SAVE YOUR OWN MAIL-IN BALLOT
There’s things we personally can do to save our ballots. And we can save our families and friends’ ballots by letting them know what to do so that they don’t lose their vote. The very first thing is, please check your registration. Almost every state, except for Oklahoma I think at this point, has online voter registration. If you say, well, I’m already registered. I’m sorry, 17 million people lost their vote through purges in the past two years. You may be one of them.
When I was in Atlanta, Martin Luther King’s cousin Christine Jordan, 92-years old, voting at the same vote polling station for 50 years, I was there and filmed her when she was being bounced out because they said she wasn’t on the voter rolls. She’d been purged.
Please check your registration online at either vote.org or your secretary of state’s office or your county clerk’s office. All those places have your registration. Make sure you’re still registered with your proper address, proper name. That’s the number one thing, cause you can’t get a ballot if you aren’t registered.
Check your own ballot. Don’t make mistakes. When you’re in a polling station, a lot of states have scanners where you stick your ballot in. If you make a mistake, it rejects it. But if you make a mistake and you’ve mailed in your ballot, you’ve lost your ballot.
For example, two voters, my parents, lost their vote because they put X’s next to the candidate’s name instead of filling in that little bubble, cause most scanners require you to fill in that little bubble.
Don’t use red pen. Don’t use a pencil. Use a black pen or blue pen. I know these sound like small things, but I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of people losing their vote because of things like this.
We also need to make sure that ballots can be forwarded so that if a ballot’s mailed to you and you’ve moved down the street you can still get it and vote. Remember who moves: students, low income people, renters, urban people — in other words Democrats.
I want everyone to vote, Republican, Democrat, green, blue, purple, but we we have to understand that voter suppression is racial. When you switch to vote by mail, you are going to suppress the African American vote and the youth vote, and this is what we have to stop.
7 STEPS LAWMAKERS NEED TO TAKE TO ENSURE EVERYONE’S VOTE BY MAIL COUNTS
- 1. Eliminate witness and notarization requirements.
- 2. Eliminate requirements to mail in an ID or a copy of an ID.
- 3. No one should be denied a ballot because they’re on an inactive list.
- 4. No one who’s been purged in the last two years should be denied a ballot.
- 5. Eliminate exact signature match.
- 6. Make all mail-in ballot envelopes postage paid.
- 7. Allow ballots to be forwarded so those that have had to move due to the COVID-19 lockdown can still vote.
7 STEPS YOU SHOULD TO TAKE TO MAKE SURE YOUR VOTE BY MAIL COUNTS
- 1. Check your registration at vote.org or your secretary of state or your county clerk’s office.
- 2. Check your ballot for mistakes and have someone double-check it for you if possible.
- 3. Don’t use red pen. Don’t use a pencil. Use a black or blue pen.
- 4. Make sure your name and signature match the ones you used on your registration. (Eg. Don’t use your middle name or initial if you didn’t include it on your registration.)
- 5. Don’t use an X instead of filling in a bubble.
- 6. Use the correct envelope,
- 7. Use the correct postage.