Pro-Voter Groups Stand Up for Safer, Fairer Elections in This Crisis
‘Anger.’ ‘Frustration.’ ‘Controversy.’ ‘Chaos.’ Those were among the words used to describe Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary as voters were given a choice: Risk their health to vote in-person or have no voice in the 2020 primaries.
Approximately 2,500 National Guardsmen were called in to man the polls Tuesday as voters lined up, most wearing face masks as they tried their best to practice social distancing while they waited to cast a ballot.
To make matters worse, the number of polling places in Milwaukee -- home to nearly 600,000 residents -- dropped from 180 to just 5 on election day due to a lack of available poll workers. Meanwhile, over 1.2 million absentee ballots had been sent out ahead of the election. Yet, hundreds of thousands had not been returned by election day, and thousands more hadn't arrived to voters who requested one.
“It seems really unfair and undemocratic and unconstitutional,” said 34-year-old Wisconsin voter Hannah Gleeson in an interview for the Washington Post. “I think it’s voter suppression at its finest.”
Gleeson, who is pregnant and infected with COVID-19, was still waiting for the absentee ballot she requested the previous week.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers made a late attempt to suspend in-person voting Monday, but the decision was rejected by the state legislature and blocked by the state Supreme Court. Yet, this is not where the rollercoaster ride ended.
A federal judge granted a one-week extension to absentee voting, but that decision was overruled by a 5-4 majority in the US Supreme Court. The entire fiasco caught the attention of pro-voter reformers, who pointed out the systemic problems that have failed to uphold voters’ rights under the current system.
“This couldn't be more alarming, that SCOTUS makes contorted arguments to uphold voter disenfranchisement in [Wisconsin] elections,” tweeted Jeanne Massey, executive director of Fair Vote Minnesota. “The shocking decision calls into question the legitimacy of the election itself.
Editor's Note: The picture in RepresentUs' tweet and the header of this article is by Patricia McKnight, an intern with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In a time of crisis, nonpartisan, pro-voter reformers have risen to the occasion to offer solutions that would not only protect lives, but protect every voter’s right to a meaningful voice in the electoral process and fair and accountable representation.
Here is what you need to know:
Reformers Unite Behind Nationwide Vote-at-Home Push
From online roundtables to presidential press conferences, the reform topic on everyone’s mind during the COVID-19 pandemic is vote-at-home and how to ensure public safety and protect voters’ civil rights at the same time.
Seventeen states have postponed elections at the state and/or local levels (as of April 1). Many of these states have postponed their statewide primaries until the summer, which has led to some concerns that the timing of the November general election might also be affected.
Retired Roll Call executive editor Morton Kondracke noted recently that in the midst of this crisis, a coalition of nonpartisan reform organizations and other groups has emerged to advance vote-at-home (VAH) advocacy across the country. These groups include:
- The National Vote at Home Institute;
- Center for Secure and Modern Elections;
- Unite America;
- Center for Election Science;
- National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers;
- Brennan Center;
- Public Citizen; and
- Common Cause.
VAH is touted by advocates as not only necessary for “virus-proof elections,” but leads to exponentially higher turnout numbers, saves states money on elections, and provides greater election security with the right controls in place.
“COVID has exposed a vulnerability in our voting system. We’re trying to make sure everyone can vote,” says National Vote at Home Institute CEO Amber McReynolds.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman wrote on CNN.som:
“In order to make voting widely accessible, especially in the middle of this national emergency, it is imperative that all states have the flexibility to mail ballots to every eligible voter -- wherever they may be taking shelter.”
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold commented in a RepresentUs online roundtable that most states already have at least some electoral infrastructure in place for VAH. Their infrastructure just needs to be bolstered with federal assistance.
“What we need is two things from the federal government,” she said.
“Number one, a mandate to ensure that every American has their voice heard. Your constitutional rights should not change because you go over the border from Colorado to another state. That is not how constitutional rights work. Number 2, we need from the federal government funding for all these states that have to scale up.”
VAH will require various degrees of legislative action, however, in many states, which is why organizations like National Vote at Home Institute and the Center for Civic Design now offer resources and toolkits to help scale VAH in every state.
- Allowing online ballot requests;
- Using available technology to update and verify voter signatures;;
- Providing secure drop-off locations;
- Extending postmark deadlines to accept ballots sent on Election Day;
- Maintaining in-person polling locations;
- Training elections officials on when and why a ballot should be rejected and notifying voters when their vote is rejected;
- Conducting audits
Top elections officials in states that use all-mail voting systems say these steps and others mentioned in Unite America Institute’s white paper guarantee greater security and convenience for elections, and when you make elections accessible, people vote.
“The time to act is now. We must not wait to know if the coronavirus will still be around this fall; by that time it will be too late to implement new systems, educate voters about their options, and train election officials on how to mail and process large volumes of mailed ballots,” states the Unite America Institute.
Early Voting and Ranked Choice Voting: Why Wyoming's Elections Did Better Than Wisconsin
Wisconsin is not the only state that will be counting votes in April. In fact, Wyoming was slated to have its primaries on Saturday, April 4. Yet, FairVote’s Rob Richie and David Daley explained in a recent op-ed why Wyoming is not experiencing the same chaos as Wisconsin.
“Officials there simply ended the in-person portion of the state's presidential primary, opened several new collection centers, and shifted the entire event to vote by mail. There's no drama, no health risk and no worries that the primary won't go off as planned,” they wrote for Salon.com.
Instead of conducting in-person voting on April 4, the Democratic presidential primary will be conducted between April 4 and April 17. During that time, voters can rank their preferences for president and send in their ballots by mail or drop them off at a collections center.
Wyoming is not alone, either. The Hawaii and Alaska Democratic Primaries, who were already slated to use ranked choice voting, also didn’t need to be postponed. Richie and Daiey wrote that a combination of early voting and ranked choice voting made the primaries in these states “pandemic proof.”
“They could cancel in-person voting without throwing everything into tumult,” they noted.
There is a similar story in Kansas. Party officials had already decided to use an all-mail early voting system with ranked choice voting before the emergence of COVID-19, while surrounding states didn’t and either had to postpone their elections as the pandemic emerged and escalated, like Missouri, or saw turnout plummet, like in Illinois.
“None of these states foresaw a pandemic. They simply wanted to create elections that gave voters more choices and a greater voice. But their careful planning also established something resilient enough to withstand a once-in-a-century public health emergency,” wrote Richie and Daley.
It is another historic year for ranked choice voting as the alternative voting method is used for the first time in presidential primary contests. Richie and Daley argue that ranked choice voting just made sense going into the 2020 cycle with such a large presidential field.
“Ranked-choice voting gives voters the power to put those candidates in order, ensuring that a winner has majority support, and is deemed the most electable by the most people,” wrote Richie and Daley.
“Everyone can vote for the candidate they want to win without worrying that, in a fractured field, their vote might help anoint the candidate they like least.”
Ranked choice voting will also be used at the state level in the general election in Maine for US House, Senate, and the presidential election.
Independent Party of Oregon Makes History with New Voting Method
The third-largest political party in Oregon is answering the question: Can political parties conduct their own primary elections? The short answer: Yes, and the party is using this freedom to combine open primaries with a new alternative voting method.
The Independent Party of Oregon lost its major party status ahead of the 2020 election cycle. However, instead of resigning itself to the sidelines while the major parties conduct their primaries, the party is using its resources to administer its own election. Just as it has in the past, the Independent Party of Oregon is also opening its doors to the state’s largest registered voting bloc, unaffiliated voters.
“They’re the largest group of voters and the most disenfranchised group of voters and they deserve to be heard,” commented Sal Peralta, the party’s secretary, to the Salem Reporter.
Oregon law allows the parties to decide whether or not to allow registered unaffiliated voters to participate in the primaries. However, the Republican and Democratic Parties have long locked out unaffiliated voters from these critical taxpayer-funded elections.
The Independent Party of Oregon will not only include its own candidates on its ballot, but qualified candidates across party lines. For instance, all 3 active presidential campaigns will be on the ballot: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden.
The party will also make history by being the first to hold binding elections using a new voting method called STAR voting. STAR stands for Score Then Automatic Runoff.
STAR voting can be simply explained as voting for candidates like one would rate a product on Amazon. Voters can assign each candidate a rating between 0-5 stars -- indicating not only preference but how voters view each candidate. The winner is the majority favorite between the top two candidates.
"We are thrilled to be the first organization to conduct a binding election using STAR Voting," said Independent Party Co-Chair Rob Harris.
"Our hope is to use our election to show voters that how we vote in America is not set in stone. It is a matter of choice. The current system has led to a divided and dysfunctional government. We would like to show people that other, better, options are available."
The Independent Party of Oregon has partnered with the Equal Vote Coalition, which is the preeminent advocate for STAR voting in Oregon and nationwide.
“This is truly a milestone in election reform, continuing a long tradition of trailblazing electoral efforts in the state of Oregon,” said Mark Frohnmayer, founder of the Equal Vote Coalition.
“The STAR Voting method, invented here in Oregon, offers best-in-class representational accuracy, simplicity, familiarity and expressiveness for voters, as well as transparency of election results. STAR Voting eliminates the spoiler effect and allows voters to honestly express their true preferences without fear of wasting their votes.”
Voting in the Independent Party of Oregon’s primary will be open from April 28th to May 12th, the official date of the publicly-administered primary elections. The party says it will use the internet to deliver ballots.
Also Worth Following...
Approval Voting On Path to Appear on St. Louis Ballot
Ranked choice voting and STAR voting are not the only alternative voting methods making waves this election cycle. STL Approves has spearheaded a ballot initiative that would implement approval voting in St. Louis, Missouri, and recently announced the city certified 20,000 signatures, twice the number needed to appear on the 2020 ballot.
Proposition D for Democracy establishes a nonpartisan top-two open primary for city elections with the use of approval voting, allowing voters to choose as many candidates on the ballot as they wish. The two candidates with the highest vote totals then move on to a runoff election.
“I started the campaign for Prop D for Democracy with four other volunteers,” said STL Approves committee chair Tyler Schlichenmeyer.
“How far we have come is a testament to how badly St. Louisans want and need fairer elections like Prop D provides. We are proud of our broad grassroots movement, and now Prop D for Democracy could give St. Louis voters a bigger voice and more power to decide the future of our city.”
Approval voting was first adopted for use in elections in Fargo, North Dakota, in 2018. It is objectively the simplest alternative voting method to emerge in a time where more and more voters are calling for better elections. It requires no changes to the ballot except that voters can indicate their support or approval for as many candidates as they want.
The Center for Election Science (CES), a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for better voting methods to produce fairer and more representative elections, partnered with STL Approves in May 2019 to bring the new voting method to city elections.
“The Center for Election Science is incredibly proud of the work that STL Approves has done to collect signatures and earn buy-in from city residents, including securing a number of high-profile endorsements such as the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis and RepresentUs,” CES stated in a press release.
CES conducted a citywide poll along with Change Research, which found that approval voting had broad support across sociopolitical demographics including 72% of independent voters, 60% of Republicans, 75% of Democrats, 79% of African-American voters, and 71% of white voters.
It seems likely Proposition D will appear on the 2020 ballot. However, due to COVID-19, city officials have yet to determine when the ballot will run.
In Other Reform News…
- 18 ballot measure campaigns across the country have suspended their in-person signature gathering drives because of COVID-19, Four of these campaigns were related to democracy reform. Four states (Colorado, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington) and one city (San Diego) have granted deadline extensions or waived other obligations for signature gathering. (Source: Fulcrum.us)
- The National Task Force on Election Crises released its first set of guidelines to safeguard elections during COVID-19. The guidelines include expanding no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail, making sure voters can fully take advantage of early voting, increasing the number of polling places, proactive and transparent communication with voters, and more. (Source: FairVote)
- Two secretaries of state offer a bipartisan approach to implementing vote-by-mail in each state. (Source: CNN)
- A new film, Slay The Dragon, follows the everyday people who are advancing ballot initiatives and reforms to end partisan gerrymandering across the country. Check it out here.
Photo Credit: Patricia McKnight
About the Author
Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.