5 Ways to Make Voting Easier for Everyone in America—Even in a Pandemic

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Yves here. It’s an understandable reflex to regard voting procedures as just not that high a priority given huge coronavirus-induced dislocations. But if you think that way, you are unwittingly playing into the hands of the “Never let a crisis go to waste” crowd.

By April M. Short, an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others. Produced by , a project of the Independent Media Institute

This is a critical election year, and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a voting season unlike any before in the nation’s history. Initially, voter turnout rates were projected to be high throughout 2020, and the primaries started out by living up to that prediction, with a surge in Democratic voter turnout overall (though not when it came to young voters, as the Bernie Sanders campaign had hoped). With COVID-19 and stay-at-home measures in place, much about the coming elections seems to be up in the air and relatively unpredictable. COVID-19 has already meant the postponement of primary elections in several states, voting days that are becoming more like voting weeks or months, shifts in voter turnout and voters risking exposing themselves to the virus in order to vote at their in-person polling stations in places where there are no alternatives in place. The ACLU and other voter rights-focused groups are increasing pressure on Congress to make vote-by-mail and expanded access to voting go-to practices across the country. In the current reality, voters in many areas are being forced to choose between their voting rights and their physical safety, as a Business Insider article published in March explores.

A federal judge ruled on May 19 that Texas must allow voters afraid of catching COVID-19 to vote by mail. Meanwhile, President Trump has threatened battleground states like Nevada and Michigan, which have been making absentee voting plans due to the virus, with reduced funding. Public pressures continue to build across the country to push states to extend their absentee voting programs due to the virus. A Pew Research Center poll published in late April showed a “sizable majority” of Americans favor a vote-by-mail option amid the pandemic.

As a FiveThirtyEight article from March explores, the pandemic has the potential to permanently shift the way Americans vote. But the challenges to polling station access posed by COVID-19 are exacerbating the shortcomings of an already less-than-ideal voting system in America.

Breaking the Barriers to Voting

Long before this pandemic, the U.S. has typically lagged behind most developed countries in the world on voter turnout, according to Pew reporting. Almost 92 million eligible Americans did not vote in the 2016 presidential elections, according to the opening line of a 2018 report titled “Increasing Voter Participation in America,” by the Center for American Progress.

A 2018 Pew survey that assessed overall public views of the political system in the U.S. found, “Overwhelming majorities of Americans—including most Republicans and Democrats—say it is very important that elections are free from tampering (90% say this) and that no eligible voters are prevented from voting (83%).”

But obstacles like lack of accessibility to polling stations (voters in Texas on Super Tuesday, for instance, had to wait six hours to cast their ballots), longstanding racially-targeted voter suppression tactics largely on the part of Republicans, and the ongoing suspicion of election tampering and faulty voting machines all likely work to potentially disincentivize people from voting.

New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute, citesunfairly drawn congressional districts and voter suppression efforts like “imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls” as major challenges to accessibility for U.S. voters. And concerns like the threat of Russian election tampering and potentially faulty voting machines (as witnessed in the 2016 elections) disincentivize people from voting as they don’t trust their vote will be fairly counted, as detailed in a 2016 Washington Post report.

Eliza Sweren-Becker, who focuses on voting rights and elections for the Brennan Center, says there are institutional challenges as well as policy challenges to voter accessibility in the U.S. She says, thanks largely to pressures from a public that is increasingly educated and concerned about voter access, several states and cities have revamped their policies to better serve voters.

“One thing we’ve seen over the last several years is that voters are paying a lot of attention to democracy and democracy reform across the country,” she says. “That fact is reflected in the number of bills advanced by state legislatures across the country to bring pro-voter reform to their states.”

She says that is also reflected by the passage of HR 1 by the House of Representatives last year—the first bill that the House put forward—which includes democracy reforms like automatic voter registration, restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions, and redistricting reform, all of which, she notes, the Brennan Center has supported for years.

“People are paying attention to democracy reform and they want greater access to the ballot,” she says. “And we’re starting to see legislators at the state and federal level taking note of that and trying to put those reforms into place.”

The state with the highest voter turnout rates in recent elections has been Minnesota. Risikat Adesaogun, press secretary for the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, attributes the trend to the fact that Minnesota has a number of voting rules in place aimed at accessibility. The state allows for same-day voter registration, online voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting (which lets people vote absentee without any excuse, up to 46 days before Election Day)—options that are unavailable in many U.S. states with more restrictive rules.

Sweren-Becker notes that, over the years, the Brennan Center has found that restrictions across the country like voter purges, strict voter ID laws, or other barriers to voting have had the biggest impacts on communities of color and traditionally disenfranchised communities.

She mentions Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court case that, in effect, undermined a provision of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ensured states with a history of enacting discriminatory voting tactics had to have any new election policy approved by the U.S. Justice Department in a process known as “preclearance.” The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case essentially gutted that portion of the landmark Civil Rights-era anti-discrimination legislation, as outlined by the Atlantic in 2018.

“The whole preclearance process, federally, has not been in effect since 2013, and as a result we’ve seen policies enacted in the last seven or so years that likely would have been prevented by the preclearance process,” says Sweren-Becker. “A strong vibrant democracy requires the broadest base of voter participation, and our government works best when it’s accountable and representative of the people. So we should make it easier for citizens to cast their ballots—not more difficult.”

The Center for American Progress report offers an in-depth look at current barriers to voting, and strategies necessary to potentially increase voter turnout. Its recommendations “to drive voter participation and make the process of voting more convenient for eligible Americans” include streamlining registration and allowing teens to register before they turn 18; making voting more convenient via absentee or vote-by-mail access for all; restoring the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people; strengthening civics education in schools and investing in outreach.

While in some areas, the barriers to the polls have increased in recent years—and steepened dramatically in recent months due to the realities of the pandemic—many states, counties and organizations continue to implement and work toward initiatives to make voting easier.

Here are several examples of creative, locally-oriented efforts to simplify voting and boost voter turnouts in the long term:

1. Free postage to vote-by-mail, and automatic voter registration

One obvious way to make voting easier and more accessible—even during a pandemic—is to make voting by mail free and easy for every citizen.

Last year, Oregon lawmakers took steps to do just that, after they passed SB 861, which codifies paid postage for all election ballots. The state uses vote-by-mail as its standard voting system, sending mail-in ballots to all of its registered voters. Now, voters will no longer have to pay for postage on their mail-in ballots, beginning with the 2020 elections, as reported in detail in Portland’s Willamette Week.

The state’s governor, Kate Brown, who approved the legislation, has been a vocal advocate for making voting in general easier. In a recent article Brown wrote on the topic for the political action-focused organization Let America Vote, she lamented the tendency of politicians like Mitch McConnell, who make voting access a partisan issue.

“We have spearheaded innovative measures to make the ballot more accessible for voters,” she writes. She points out that Oregon was the first state to implement vote-by-mail elections, adding that it is “a cheaper, more secure method that allows voters with geographical constraints an easier way to vote.” Since becoming the first state to implement automatic voter registration, in 2016, Oregon, she notes, “has increased voter turnout more than any other state.”

Currently five states have a vote-by-mail system for all voters, and as the Brennan Center summarizes, more states have been implementing automatic registration systems in the last year. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that:

“As of April 22, 2019, 11 states and the District of Columbia provide automatic registration when citizens interact with state agencies such as the DMV, along with 7 other states that have passed legislation or committed administratively to create automatic registration systems, but not yet implemented it.”

2. Reining in voter ID requirements, which often prevent people in marginalized communities from voting.

While 36 states currently have identification requirements in place at polling stations, some are more restrictive than others, and many groups are actively working to dismantle the most marginalizing voter ID laws. There are several active efforts in place to roll back restrictive voter ID laws, which historically disproportionately target voters of color, as the ACLU reports on its voter ID fact sheet. The group also notes that obtaining an ID costs money, and as of their 2017 reporting, “11% of U.S. citizens—or more than 21 million Americans—do not have government-issued photo identification.” What’s more, they report, “nationally, up to 25% of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of whites.”

One recent example of success in dismantling strict voter ID laws came this February, as Native American voters in North Dakota reached a breakthrough settlement deal in a lawsuit over the state’s voter ID requirements, after years of legal battles, as the Center for Public Integrity reports. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued the requirements have disproportionately impacted Native American voters, and according to a joint statement by North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger and the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock tribes, the settlement agreement “will ensure all Native Americans who are qualified electors can vote, relieve certain burdens on the Tribes related to determining residential street addresses for their tribal members and issuing tribal IDs, and ensure ongoing cooperation through mutual collaboration between the State and the Tribes to address concerns or issues that may arise in the future.”

3. Increased access for people with felony convictions to vote.

The League of Women Voters, a civic engagement organization founded in 1920 after women finally won the right to vote in the U.S., has been active in the growing movement to dismantle voting barriers for people with felony convictions. America convicts and locks up felons at one of the highest rates in the world, and people—especially men—of color make up the majority of convicted felons. According to the ACLU’s most recent data on mass incarceration, the U.S. has almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoner population but just around 5 percent of the world’s population.

The League of Women Voters is currently challenging a bill in Florida that makes it harder for people with a felony conviction to register to vote, and has been an advocate of loosening voting restrictions for people with prior felony convictions, as part of their larger mission to expand overall voter access.

4. Preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds.

New York passed a law in December, signed by Governor Cuomo, to allow 17-year-olds to preregister to vote. At least 20 other states also allow teenagers (usually between 16 and 17 years old, depending on the state) to pre-register to vote. The Center for American Progress lists this as one of its six key recommendations in its report, citing one benefit “is that, once a person registers to vote, that individual becomes part of a state’s voter file and is more likely to be contacted by campaign and grassroots efforts, which increase voter participation.”

5. Strengthening civics education and voter engagement.

As the Center for American Progress report notes, one of the key ways to encourage more people to vote is to better educate voters on local issues and encourage their engagement with local politics.

In Minnesota, for example (where many of the above strategies are already in place), Risikat Adesaogun says one of the key reasons for the state’s high voter turnout has been the Civic Engagement and Outreach Coalition, an outreach team the Secretary of State’s office has specially dedicated to educate Minnesotans about registration and the voting process.

The coalition, Adesaogun says, is a “partnership of over 80 nonpartisan organizations that work to connect with Minnesotans all across the state, to register eligible voters, to provide information about Election Day and to provide information about specific topics.”

COVID-19 is pushing more states to quickly adopt election reforms such as mail-based voting to make sure elections are accessible. If every state in the country were to implement a mail-based voting system that was free and easy to access, they could potentially dismantle many of the current barriers to voting and reduce the potential for future emergencies to interfere with the democratic process. It is both possible and beneficial to U.S. democracy to make voting easier for all.

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  1. Watt4Bob

    When I was growing up, there was a stack of the American Rifleman magazines in the corner of my Grandfather’s office that was taller than me. I always read everything I could get my hands on, so I read through that stack over the years.

    There was a definite political message related to the 2nd amendment that was reinforced over and over, that being, the American peoples constitutional rights, purchased by the blood spilled in the revolution of 1776, were in the last resort, protected by the peoples right to bear arms.

    This message was interwoven with the warning that all efforts at ‘gun control‘ were precursors to government imposed tyranny.

    Underlying, and running parallel to all this is a national myth that says America is naturally ‘self-correcting‘, that we may drift back and forth, left, and then right, but in the end we always end up back in the comfortable center.

    I’ve come to think that there are a bunch of people who think that America has an eternal revolution, built on the foundation of the peoples right to bear arms, which provides a sure check on the evil folks who would subvert our constitution.

    The problem with this belief is that those who hold it dearly, have over many years, stood by without protest as access to the actual foundation of our ‘permanent revolution’, the Democratic process, the ballot box if you will, has been denied to many Americans.

    If you’ve been standing idly by as the right to vote is impeded, how can you complain that you’ve nothing left of your liberty except your guns?

    If America has any expectation of a ‘self- correction’, if we indeed have a living revolution, it is founded on the right to vote, not the right to shoot someone.

  2. Bob

    Massive mailing of paper ballots to people is ripe for making the election a nightmare. If there are no verifications of signatures; allowing ballot harvesting; and other reforms the election will be contested and neither side will be happy with the outcome. I see nothing wrong with voting in person, it is been going on forever. If you want to make a change increase the number of voting sites; give people a day off to vote; and make any border ID requirements free. The whole idea is to have my vote counted without it passing through anyone else’s hands. People voted in Korea without any problem. Hasty changes without debate and procedures to prevent fraud is wrong. The mantra that there is no evidence of fraud is ridiculous. People cheat at everything that can be gamed. Why allow this. We don’t need anymore hanging chads.

    1. voislav

      They should mail the ballots but vote in person. People can just bring a pre-filled ballot and deposit it at the voting site. That way you still make sure that people are voting in person, but you avoid the time-consuming process of filling out the ballot. You could also have mobile “voting” sites, that move around and collect ballots.

    2. Big River Bandido

      This is hogwash. “Voter fraud” is so rare as to be nonexistent, but it’s the first cry of those who want to suppress turnout.

      Oregon has been voting completely by mail for years, and never, ever a problem.

      1. Lambert Strether

        > Oregon has been voting completely by mail for years, and never, ever a problem.

        The stakes are a lot smaller in Oregon. And, I dare say, it’s state apparatus is above average for functionality. (You just have to look at the acceptance of ballot marking devices in so many states to know that voting administrators are somewhere between extremely gullible and outright crooked. They won’t automatically become clean simply because the ballots arrive in the mail.)

    3. Kurtismayfield

      The same arguments against mail in voting can be said of census and tax forms.. and no one bats an eye at it. If you are against voting by mail then you should be for people showing up at a tax office and census office.

  3. Howard Beale IV

    You really want to make a change? Make voting compulsory – solves the low turnout problem.

  4. Big River Bandido

    We do have a serious problem with accessibility to the vote. An even deeper problem is the complete lack of a responsive and responsible politics, which leads to what we have this year: a ballot stuffed with candidates unworthy of anything, much less election to high office.

    1. Katiebird

      I voted by mail in the Kansas Democratic Primary. I have no idea if my ballot was received. If it was deemed valid. If it was then counted.

      When I vote in person, I get a little I Voted! Sticker. Couldn’t they have sent me one For the mail in election?

      1. Tom Doak

        Yes, but just because they gave you a sticker does not necessarily mean the machine counted your vote.

      2. sj

        I live in Denver, CO and I think I got an I Voted! sticker in with my mail-in ballot. But I also got other important notifications.

        In time for the June state primary elections, the Denver Elections Divisions on Wednesday unveiled updates to BallotTRACE, a tool that lets voters track their mail ballots like they would a package.

        BallotTRACE, which stands for Tracking, Reporting And Communication Engine, alerts Denver voters by text or email when their ballot has been printed out, put in the mail and delivered to their mailbox. Once voters mail back their ballot, they are notified again when it’s received by the elections division.

        It feels more reassuring than a touch screen. And recounts means actual ballots can be counted. Not get a total from a machine.

  5. John

    If politicians in each party really wanted to boost turnout, the restrictions would be removed, but it is so convenient if ‘those people’, who ever they happen to be, do not vote while my upstanding constituents flock to the polls.

    Paper ballots. Marked in public.

  6. Glen

    My state has had vote by mail for at least the last five or more years (it seems like – I could be wrong), and it works great.

  7. a different chris

    My reaction is “who wants that?” Not the Rethugs, not the performatively helpless Dems. Just us 99%, and when was the last time we got anything we wanted.

    However, it does touch on a weird issue I have – weird because I’ve hardly know for sure anybody who’s actually been in jail – I’m sure that’s not something you share to say a work aquaintance, but as a middle class suburban bred engineer I’m betting it’s pretty typical. Anyway, this is it:

    3. Increased access for people with felony convictions to vote’

    I simply do not understand how we ever let this come to be (and “increased access”, yeah we all know what that means. Sigh). Did our supposedly great libertarian (ACLU) organizations really even try to fight this?

    I mean – you do the crime, you do the time. That’s supposed to be it. Why do you lose this privilege?

  8. rexl

    I happen to agree with disallowing felons to vote. I do not feel that voting is a “right” I think of it as a privilege. I also think that if congressional approval falls below a certain percentage, like ten percent then a new election should be held. Oregon has a lot of problems, perhaps mail in ballots caused them? Why make it only sixteen and seventeen year old voters, why not ten and eleven year olds? I personally think voters should be at least thirty, or forty, let them get some brains, let the hormones slow down. I thing there should be more voter ID, involved. People should have to prove they are who they say they are. There was something to be said for the congress electing the Senate.

    1. wilroncanada

      Gee rexi, what about a poll tax? What about restricting it to landowners, not even occupiers who are actually mortgage debtors. What about a ballot for each piece of land you own? What about going back to those halcyon days where blacks are counted at ?? percent of a person? We could even add Hispanics. Or when East Asians (weren’t they all classed as “Chinese, or first nations could not vote at all? Or any other trick a few oligarchs and their minions can come up with to make sure that ordinary people can never take part in YOUR democracy

      1. rexl

        gee willy, sounds good to me. You are up on all the latest b.s. bumpersticker logic. Is it time for your Cnn fix?

        1. Dan

          Rexl is all about taking things away from people. “I should be free to discriminate, and take rights away from people. That is what freedom means to me.”

          1. rexl

            Yes Dan, but what does “freedom” mean to YOU? What does the right to “think” mean to you? Hello, Dan, anyone in there?

  9. Alex

    Not being from the US, this is quite interesting to read. In the two countries I have voted automatic voter registration is the norm and as far as I know there are no limitations on voting for ex-felons.

    On the other hand presenting a photo ID is absolutely compulsory and it even sounds strange for me that there are places where it isn’t.

    There is no voting by mail – in Russia you can go to a polling station in the week that precedes the elections and vote if you can’t make it on the elections day. Having been an observer at two elections there, I think that voting in person is better – the whole process is much more transparent, there’s less room for manipulations and the oversight is easier.

    A lot here depends on culture and so I’m not implying that any of the above practices are superior or would necessarily work well in the US.

    1. Jeff

      You’re using your experience in Russia as a good example for voting to occur? Hmmm.

      1. Alex

        Did you read my post until the end? I explicitly said ‘I’m not implying that any of the above practices are superior or would necessarily work well in the US’.

        I’m certainly aware of the problems with voting in Russia – this is what drove me to become an observer.

  10. Tom Peetz

    Voting without a picture ID isn’t available in Mexico, Canada and the EU (and other places I’m sure. If people say that is a “restriction” on voting, how do those people without ID get liquor, on an airplane, welfare, etc?
    There is only one political party that consistently tries to weaken control over voting. There is only one reason, to make it easier to cheat.
    In Nevada the dems now want to eliminate signature varification on mail in ballots. Hum, I wonder why…

    1. wilroncanada

      Wrong-o Tom. Canada does NOT require a photo ID to vote in a federal election. Everybody on the voter’s list gets a voter reg card (sometimes they go missing or are ignored). To vote, if you have received that card, you can produce ONE other piece of ID containing your picture, OR that card plus two pieces of ID, including many things, including bank statement, birth certificate, or more than a dozen other items. We want even homeless people, the unbanked, hermits who live wild in the woods, and others to be able to vote.

    2. Andrew Thomas

      Signature verification is bullshit. My mother registered to vote in the benighted state of Florida 34 years ago- after she had retired up north. She now has a tremor. She couldn’t match her signature from 34 years ago if she worked at it all day. It is a device selectively used to deny votes from a certain ilk the right to be counted. Voter suppression has been a feature of our quasi-republic for its entire existence. The great unwashed have never supposed to have had a voice in governance, and a series of events that began with Brown v. Board, etc., which was the triggering event for the destruction of public schools, followed by the first attempts since the end of Reconstruction to give a little life to amendments 13-15 of the constitution, which was the beginning of the racist backlash which is now beginning to flower, followed by the Powell letter, which was the seed from which our now familiar uncivil society was born- Heritage Foundation, Federalist Society, etc.- and then the complete crapification of electoral politics by unlimited money, started by Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, the tax slashing for the rich in the Reagan years, and finished with a flourish with Citizens United in 2010, have finished off all of us great unwashed yet again. Did I mention the corporate capture of the entire news media? There was a great movie called Network in 1974 that portrayed a media after its capture by ratings that was regarded at the time as a dystopian vision. Watch it now, and it appears almost quaint. The problem our essayist wants to solve isn’t a problem to the PTB- it was, is, and will continue to be, the solution.

  11. Don in Oakville

    Unfamiliar as I am with American election practices, I have to ask why there is no discussion of advance polls / extended time in which people can vote.

    Suppose people could vote over a three of four week period, with separate facilities for voters who wished to practice social distancing / wear masks and voters who wished to vote unprotected, in each case with protection for election workers.

  12. catsick

    The most sensible system would be for each party to be given $10 in funding for each vote it receives and a total ban on accepting money from any form of lobbying or donations or PAC nonsense as the $10 should more than cover what is needed. Both parties and also any third party would then have a huge incentive to make sure as many voters as possible get out to vote …

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