Read: The Republicans telling voters to ignore Trump
The widespread failures during the primary elections foreshadow a potentially disastrous November election. States such as New York have been racing to make accommodations for voting by mail. But other states are making voting more difficult for residents: Oklahoma is fighting to keep its law requiring that absentee ballots be notarized; Texas will not accept medical vulnerability to the coronavirus as sufficient grounds for absentee voting. Even though greater access to the vote might help a sizable number of Donald Trump’s voters, this opposition to it comes from the top. “Mail ballots, they cheat,” the president has said.
The barriers to ballot access were unacceptable before the pandemic, Leah Aden, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who is actively litigating several voting-rights cases, told me. Black voters, on average, wait 45 percent longer to vote than white voters; Latino voters wait 46 percent longer.* One study, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, found that black and Latino voters in Florida were more than two times as likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected as white voters—because of a mix of voter error and how the state processes ballots. To leave that already flawed system unchanged in a pandemic is injurious, Aden said. “The failure to operate in the context that we’re in, which is a pandemic, and proactively use your resources to address the emergence of that: That is also a form of voter suppression.”
Several states, such as Georgia, Virginia, and Massachusetts, have reported record turnout for their primary elections, and will probably see double to triple that in the general. “It’s likely that we’re not going to fix these problems by November,” Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who studies elections, told me. “In some cases, there really aren’t any good solutions.”
Read: Fighting for the right to vote in a tiny Texas county
More polling places will not magically appear. The average poll worker is more than 60 years old—and therefore vulnerable to COVID-19. In Wisconsin, roughly 7,000 poll workers said they would not work during the April election because of their fears of the coronavirus. Voters had to scramble to find new polling places, and figure out ways to get to them. The result? Long lines and a spike in absentee voting.
“Habituation is one of the things that makes people vote,” Henry Brady, who studies electoral politics at UC Berkeley, told me. Some people are encouraged to vote because it’s easy enough to do. In 2011, Brady and a team of researchers examined how changing polling places could affect the outcome of an election—and they found that alternating a location may have reduced voting by as much as 2 percent. Some people voted absentee instead of in person when their polling place was changed—but the study examined California, where an excuse is not required for absentee voting. “You’re probably going to lose a lot more voters in places where vote-by-mail is not as easy.”