55 Years After Voting Rights Act's Passage, Advocates Now Worry About COVID

Mail in voting
An elections worker sorts unopened ballots at the King County Elections headquarters on August 4, 2020, in Renton, Washington. Today is election day for the primary in Washington state, where voting is done almost exclusively by mail. David Ryder/Getty

On the 55th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act, advocates say 2020 presents a whole new challenge for elections access: The novel coronavirus.

"States are falling far short from ensuing every voter can safely cast a ballot," Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told reporters Wednesday. "Voters deserve better and our democracy deserves better."

Voting rights advocates already had taken issue with changes to the law made after 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted some of the VRA's strictest protections over the placement or closing polling locations. But they say now the coronavirus pandemic could present even more hurdles for minorities and people with disabilities, voters who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and tend to be more at risk for severe effects.

"We're faced with an impossible decision," Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, told reporters. "Protecting our health—sometimes our lives—and participating in democracy."

Congress passed first passed the VRA in 1965 in an attempt to ban racial discrimination of voters. It's been amended several times, and now also covers people with disabilities and people who do not speak English.

House Democrats late last year passed an updated Voting Rights Act, now renamed for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Civil Rights leader who represented Georgia in Congress for more than three decades until his death last month.

Democrats also have sought more than $3 billion in the next coronavirus relief package to go toward COVID-prevention efforts for voters and election workers.

"It's imperative that Congress provide funding for elections in November so that voting can be conducted in a safe, accessible and secure manner," Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, told reporters.

More than 156,000 people have died of COVID-19, and states continue to experience flare-ups in cases. Some elections officials have turned to vote-by-mail to give voters a way to avoid long lines and contact with people at polling places, but President Donald Trump repeatedly has said he doesn't trust wide-spread, mail-in voting for this fall's elections, despite risks involved with the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

"We have an immediate crisis on our hands," Gupta said.

Georgia's June primary was riddled with problems—some absentee ballots were never delivered, applications were not processed and voters faced hours-long waits at polling sites. It's prompted several investigations into how the system broke down and how it can be repaired before the November 3 presidential election.

Georgia also is one of several southern states to see a recent surge in coronavirus cases.

Butler called the scene "chaos" but said it was also one of the largest primary election turnouts that the state has ever seen.

"Voters were committed that they were not going to let their power be taken away," she said.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has estimated that the cost to safely hold in-person voting during the pandemic would be nearly $300 million for precautions at election sites, equipment and protective equipment for poll workers.

U.S. Representative Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, told reporters she thinks that the Voting Rights Act update is needed because some state and local elections officials have reportedly changed polling places with little notice, pared-back voting hours and purged voters from their rolls.

"In the midst of a pandemic, no less," Sewell said.

California secretary of state Alex Padilla said he thinks that mail-in voting could help ease some of the stress on the voting system, and make it easier and safer for voters to cast their ballots in person, as well.

"There are a lot of voters who need an in-person option," he said.