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OPINION

How Americans vote is threatened

Officials must invest in robust information campaigns across multiple platforms that provide clear instructions to voters on deadlines, locations, and methods available to cast ballots.

A polling station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April. Wisconsin voters defied stay-at-home orders to wait as long as two hours to cast ballots in the first state to hold an in-person election since the coronavirus pandemic sent Americans into their homes.
A polling station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April. Wisconsin voters defied stay-at-home orders to wait as long as two hours to cast ballots in the first state to hold an in-person election since the coronavirus pandemic sent Americans into their homes.Thomas Werner/Bloomberg

The most fundamental act of democratic engagement — voting — is being profoundly threatened during this time of global pandemic. This is particularly so as the nation heads into the last set of primary elections and the November general election.

How Americans vote is threatened because of the massive logistical challenges of managing safe and efficient voting while social distancing measures are in place due to the coronavirus. Who votes is also threatened, because the fear of voting itself, combined with misinformation campaigns, could skew turnout, jeopardizing the legitimacy of the election. And how we tally votes is potentially problematic because the combination of an increase in voting by mail and a shortage of experienced personnel to count the ballots may yield delayed or even contested results.

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Protecting the right to vote depends on investments in US voting infrastructure and personnel. Voting by mail is a critical option but is not by itself a panacea, especially in states that are adopting this policy for the first time. In-person voting will still need to occur, as it does in each of the states that already have universal mail-in balloting: Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, Colorado, and Washington. In-person voting relies on a vast and underappreciated army of people who make voting happen: poll workers.

Many current poll workers are squarely in the age demographic most impacted by the pandemic. New poll workers will need to be hired and trained to replace anyone who opts out due to safety concerns. States and municipalities must ensure that every polling location has sufficient equipment, space for social distancing, and cleaning precautions in place to properly protect poll workers and voters. Expanding early voting options would also help increase social distancing precautions but will require more poll worker hours.

Motivating Americans to cast their ballots is also key. But, in this time of COVID-19, voter mobilization depends on rethinking the fundamentals of voter engagement.

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Instead of organizing people to identify and mobilize voters within a specific precinct, campaigns and get-out-the-vote advocacy organizations are asking individuals to mobilize people they already know to vote. To broaden the reach, these “captains” recruit other captains and so on. Preliminary data suggest that such an approach can be even more effective than traditional door-to-door canvassing, which campaigns and other groups are now unable to do. Advocates and campaigns are using phone and text banks to connect with friends and drawing on social media live feeds, where candidates can personally make the appeal to supporters.


Providing clearly articulated, factually accurate information about how, where, and when to cast a ballot is also more important than ever. State election officials, voting advocates, and campaigns all have a role to play in making sure that information provided to voters is easy to follow and exact. The National Association of Secretaries of States’ “Can I Vote” website provides exactly this kind of authoritative information.

The best place to go for accurate information is the local town or city clerks’ offices, which can tell you where to locate early-voting sites, Election Day polling places, mail drop boxes, etc., and exact hours of operation.

In the current political environment, however, information is not neutral. Efforts are clearly underway to sow seeds of confusion, use scare tactics, and undermine the efforts of election officials to offer people a safe and efficient way to vote. Government officials must invest in robust information campaigns across multiple platforms that provide clear instructions to voters on deadlines, locations, and methods available to cast ballots.

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The legitimacy of our elections is fundamental to democracy. Citizens need to believe in the integrity of the process and have faith that the outcome is valid and a true reflection of the will of the people. This will happen only if, together, we step up to this challenge and invest in our democracy.

In 2016, 40 percent of eligible American voters did not cast a ballot. The only way to enact change is to be part of the solution. It’s time for Americans to engage, to join a campaign, to run for office themselves, to contact their elected officials and tell them that our democracy must survive this pandemic — and the threats to the integrity of the electoral process — and that Americans have a right to vote safely and with confidence. And it is time for all of us to inspire our friends, family, and neighbors to vote in 2020 and in every election going forward. Every vote cast is a vote for the nation’s future.

Rachael V. Cobb is chair of the Political Science and Legal Studies Department at Suffolk University and a member of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. Brian M. Conley is an associate professor and director of the graduate program of the Political Science and Legal Studies Department at Suffolk University.

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