Last Wednesday at the Collision from Home conference, I had the opportunity to speak about the future of voting with Sabrina Siddiqui, National Politics Reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and Sheila Nix, the President of Tusk Philanthropies. When we first envisioned this conversation a few months ago, it was with the intent to discuss new innovations that would likely shape voting over the next decade. But when we filmed the conversation, it was our immediate future—what would happen in the U.S. election this November—that was at the forefront of our minds.
At the heart of democracy is the right to vote. So what happens this year will not just impact the future of U.S. elections, it will also impact the fundamental infrastructure of our democracy as citizens experience whether or not they can exercise one of their most basic rights. The serious challenges that plagued this year’s primary season illuminated that the future of voting will not be determined in some distant future; it’s happening right now.
Voter suppression is not new. But using the impacts of a global pandemic to stoke fear and prevent people from voting is. Citizens of this country should not have to choose between their health and participating in the democratic process. There are three things we can do to both ensure that people can vote safely, and to meaningfully address systemic inequities in our country: organize and educate around safe in-person voting practices, campaign for absentee voting and vote by mail, and increase ballot diversity.
First, we have to organize at the local level to ensure safe voting practices. Citizens need to know how to cast their ballot without putting their health on the line—and need to trust that they’ll be safe when they get to the ballot box. This means deep coordination with local officials to make personal protective equipment (PPE) available at polling places, alongside mechanisms to maintain social distancing. Local leaders and organizers must start now to educate the public about how to vote safely, and make these measures part of any get out the vote (GOTV) effort leading up to November. (For inspiration see League of Women Voters and Vote Run Lead’s guides for voter engagement.) And, critically, there have to be enough polling locations and poll workers to avoid long lines and multi-hour wait times. If it’s possible for you, consider volunteering to become a poll worker—and put pressure on secretaries of state (35 of whom are elected), alongside state election officials to ensure safe, accessible polling locations for all citizens.
Second, join efforts already underway or start your own campaign to advocate for no-excuse absentee voting and vote-by-mail. Make sure you know if your state still requires an “excuse” to vote absentee. Check out organizations like NYC Votes, who are encouraging more people to vote by mail, and ensuring that people can vote safely in upcoming elections. Build campaigns that focus on voter registration, particularly in states where turnout has been historically low.
Finally, run for office! When people make it to the ballot box, who are they able to vote for? Diverse political representation starts with who’s on the ballot. There are over 500,000 elected offices in this country, but it’s not unusual for more than half of those races to have only one candidate. According to the Reflective Democracy Campaign, over half of the races in the 2018 midterms were uncontested (68% at the county level). And, the majority of those unopposed candidates were white and male. City, county, and community-level elections are critical levers of policy influence; it’s during these elections that we choose our sheriffs, district attorneys, public prosecutors, and judges. To fundamentally address systemic racism and other structural inequities in our society we have to increase the diversity of who’s on the ballot. We built RunForOffice.org to make information about running for office more accessible to everyone. Check the deadlines—not all filing windows for 2020 have closed yet!
NationBuilder exists to ensure that everyone has access to the tools of leadership and organizing. Democracy—and what it takes to help democracy thrive—has always been at the heart of our mission. In these tumultuous times, we’re again reminded that democracy is not a given, and that we must fight for it, together, every day.