Emily Wilkins, Bloomberg Government, May 15, 2020
Minorities, young adults and those with disabilities face barriers to voting by mail as states rush to prepare for holding elections as safely as possible.
Organizations advocating for voters, blacks, Hispanics and college students say voting-by-mail is an important option. But a number of state-level policies can make it harder for voters to request and send a ballot that won’t be rejected. While these policies impact all voters, they can be a bigger burden for some, said Aneesa S. McMillan, director of strategic communications and voting rights with Priorities USA, a super PAC aligned with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
To address their concerns, lawsuits have been filed in dozens of states. Key presidential and congressional battlegrounds, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida, all have ongoing lawsuits, some from voters rights organizations, others from Democratic-party aligned groups.
Native Americans living on reservations might not have a mailing address. College students who registered at an address on or near a now-closed campus may have relocated back home.
Lower-income voters tend to move more, meaning their address might not match the one to which their ballot is sent. Coronavirus is expected to aggravate displacement, as high unemployment forces people to move out of their homes, said Vanessa Cardenas, a senior adviser for LULAC, an advocacy group for Hispanics. Black and Hispanic median household incomes have been the lowest of any race or ethnic group for the past 50 years, according to the Census Bureau.
When a voter mails in a ballot, there’s a chance their ballot will be rejected for a variety of reasons depending on the state — mismatched signature, no witness for the signature, no signature on the envelope. Nearly every state rejects a small number of ballots, usually less than 1%, according to MIT’s Elections Performance Index.
A study of mail-in ballots during Florida’s 2018 general election found several discrepancies based on age and race. Compared to voters 65 and older, voters 21 and younger were five times more likely to have their ballots rejected, and voters between the ages of 22 and 25 were four times as likely.
Black and Hispanic Floridians who voted by mail were twice as likely to have their ballots rejected as white voters, according to the study from political science professors at the University of Florida and Dartmouth.
While 1.2% of the 2.6 million mail ballots were rejected, the report warned that those 31,969 rejected ballots should be taken seriously given former Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) winning margin over then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D) was 10,033 votes.
Some legal action has focused on making sure there are in-person polling places for those with disabilities preventing them from filling out a ballot without assistance, or for those who can’t speak or read English and don’t live in areas where the population requires a ballot to be translated.
The ACLU and NAACP are also suing Louisiana for requiring a witness signature on ballots cast by mail, a burden the groups say will impact all voters but poses a higher threat to blacks given they make up the majority of coroanvirus deaths in the state while being only a third of the population.
Other lawsuits in battleground states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida focused on ensuring four “pillars” of vote-by-mail, as Elias describes them: free postage; counting ballots postmarked by election day, even if they arrive after election day; ensuring states that use signature matching train officials and provide the option of fixing the ballot; and allowing organizations to collect and deliver sealed ballots.