By Amanda Menas
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, voters must still be able to cast their primary and general election ballots for local, state, and presidential elections. However, with insufficient federal funding and guidance, some state legislators are using the crisis to push their political agenda and disenfranchise voters.
In Wisconsin, the GOP-led legislature denied Gov. Tony Evers’ efforts to delay the April 7 election, forcing many voters to choose between risking their health or sacrificing their opportunity to vote. Evers also tried to extend absentee voting. But that effort, too, was overturned, this time by the conservative majorities in the state supreme court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Amidst the chaos, educators in Milwaukee tried to keep up their spirits as well as their advocacy for a critical ballot measure to help their schools.
In Milwaukee, Elizabeth Kosmach has been advocating along with other educators for the passage of an $87 million referendum, which will provide students with high-quality teachers, music, art, and physical education programs, and more. During this crisis, her school district has made the move to virtual lessons, and Kosmach says the referendum will help ensure all students have the opportunity to learn.
“Right now, Milwaukee public schools are not there yet because we have a lack of funding that has not gotten us there… Now, in the pandemic, our students need full-time psychologists, full-time social workers, and full-time nurses,” said Kosmach, a special education teacher at Whittier Elementary School.
Former Vice President and 2020 candidate Joe Biden made the unusual move of endorsing the referendum saying, “We also need to talk about equity and the real, structural barriers facing too many students – especially in communities of color.”
Communities of color are experiencing disproportionate effects of the coronavirus pandemic in terms of job losses, unequal access to health coverage, and for students, less internet access to participate in remote learning. If successful, the referendum will help close the “homework gap” in Milwaukee, and ensure that students have physical and mental health supports they need.
But will the referendum pass? Voting conditions in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s black residents live, were among the most difficult in the state. A normal election would have roughly 180 polling stations in the city–this April, there were only five, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Eventually, every state must figure out how it will conduct elections during the pandemic. The question is how hard they will work to ensure that voting rights are protected, not diminished.
Some states are changing rules to make voting safer for the public and to reduce the health risks to those working at the polls. In the most recent stimulus package, Congress dedicated $400 million to helping states prepare for the election, but only $10 billion of the originally proposed $25 billion for the US Postal Service to aid in operations for sending out absentee ballots.
The federal government needs to provide states with additional funding and guidance during this pandemic to ensure equal access to the ballot, expand and enhance absentee voting, early voting and voting by mail, especially for those who cannot go to the polls or use voting machines for health reasons. Additionally, special attention should be given to the Voting Rights Act to ensure access to the polls is not impacted by racial, economic, geographic or any COVID-19 impact.
Here are some steps that states have taken so far:
Alaskans will now vote entirely by mail on April 10, one week after the originally scheduled primary. Absentee ballots will also be accepted until April 10, an extension from March 24.
Governor Ned Lamont moved the primary to June 2 from late-April and is reviewing requests to issue an emergency order to permit those concerned about in-person voting for health reasons to request and receive absentee ballots.
A state of emergency was declared to postpone Delaware’s primary until early June. The declaration also allows voters to request absentee ballots due to the virus.
Originally postponing the election to May 19, voting will now occur on June 9 with in-person voting still allowed. Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, has also mailed absentee ballot request forms to 6.9 million active voters.
Democrats cancelled in-person voting for the presidential primary and will allow new voters to register before April 4 to vote by absentee ballot by May 22.
Vote-by-mail is expanded to all voters for the primary election in Indiana, which has been moved from May 5 to June 2.
Kentucky’s secretary of state announced in a video on Twitter the state would delay its primary election to June 23.
Voters will cast their ballots on June 20, two months later than the originally scheduled date.
Governor Larry Hogan has moved the presidential primary to June 2 to allow for precautions to be taken to prevent the spread of the virus. The special election in Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District to replace the late Representative Elijah E. Cummings will remain on April 28 and be conducted entirely by mail.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order to expand absentee voting for the May 5 election. Every registered voter and new registrants will be able to receive absentee ballots with the assistance of the Michigan Department of State.
New Jersey Democrats express concerns that in-person voting may not be safe in early-summer months, postponing voting from June 2 to July 7. The rescheduled election would be the first time in the modern history of the primary system that a state contest is held in July.
Deadlines for voting by mail have also been extended. Mail ballots will automatically be sent to voters who requested them in the previous election. Voters do not need an excuse to vote by mail in New Jersey. Visit the NJEA website for instructions on how to apply for and fill out an absentee ballot.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced presidential primaries would be moved to June 23, a date already set for state legislative and congressional primaries. He has also removed limits on allowing voters to use absentee ballots.
According to the OEA, “Many school districts had levies on the anticipated March 17th primary. The results of these levies will have an impact on staffing decisions for the next school year. Current law has a June 1st deadline for notifying staff of the school board’s intent to non-renew a contract. Having election results prior to this date is critical to allowing affected districts to plan their budgets and in making decisions about staffing.”
The Primary Election originally scheduled for March 17 has been postponed to April 28. Absentee ballots with postage-paid return envelopes will be sent to those who request. The County Board of Elections will make an in-person voting location available for voters who are disabled or unable to receive mail.
To stay up to date, visit the OEA website.
State lawmakers and the governor approved the postponement of both presidential and congressional primaries until June 2. All residents may request an absentee ballot.
The state secretary of state, Nellie M. Gorbea says the state will send all registered voters a mail ballot application with a postage-paid return envelope ahead of the rescheduled June 2 primary.
The Primary Runoff Election previously scheduled for May 26 has been postponed until July 14. However, some elections may be postponed until November, and updates are still needed regarding run-off elections.
TSTA has prioritized the importance of educators voting, saying, “All educators have the right to vote, endorse candidates, campaign for candidates and encourage their colleagues, their friends and anyone else to vote for those candidates. The same applies to educators supporting or opposing specific political parties or ballot issues.”
For more information, visit TSTA.
Virginia’s elections for House of Representatives primaries and a Republican primary to pick the candidate who will compete against Senator Mark Warner in the fall have been postponed until June 23 from June 9.
Governor Jim Justice postponed the state’s elections from May 12 to June 9 and has extended the deadline to obtain an absentee ballot for those who are unable to make it to the polls.
Democrats in Wyoming will caucus by mail on April 17. As in-person voting was suspended ahead of the scheduled April 4 date, voters may now submit absentee ballots up to April 17.(now voting entirely by mail)
Wyoming Democrats suspended the in-person portion of their caucuses, scheduled for April 4. Voters who registered as Democrats by March 20 will be sent ballots in the mail, and ballots received by April 17 will be counted, the party said.
Alabama, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have also postponed some or all of their elections.
This election season, it is more important than ever to know your rights when you go to the polls. Make sure to check what time your poll location closes to ensure you are in line to vote on time, and if possible, fill out a regular ballot instead of a provisional ballot to confirm your vote is counted. For more information about what your state is doing to protect poll workers and voters this election, visit Vote.org