This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Last week’s elections in Georgia were an unmitigated disaster — a complete election meltdown that did little to quell fears about how the pandemic will impact voting in November. Some voters never received their absentee ballot, there were problems with election machines and in-person voting lines were disturbingly long. Countless Georgians, disproportionately people of color, waited hours to cast a ballot.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden took to Twitter with strong words in response to the debacle: “From ballot shortages and issues with machines to hours-long lines — what happened today in Georgia should enrage us all. We need to act now to prevent it from happening again in November. Our democracy depends on it.”
Having the former vice president speak out about problems in our democracy is critical. As the nominee, his statements can drive news cycles and shed light on this issue that is far too often ignored.
However, Biden’s effectiveness as a voting rights advocate is deeply hampered by the fact that he still does not have a stand-alone voting rights plan on his website. This is a glaring omission, as the right to vote has been severely threatened not only by the virus, but by Republican officials across the country.
Indeed, Biden spent most of the early campaign season largely silent on the issue of voting rights. While he occasionally mentioned the need for reform, he never provided many specifics. In recent months, he has shifted gears. Biden finally joined his former rivals in pledging to prioritize reform if elected and he seemingly endorsed H.R. 1, the omnibus election reform bill passed by the House of Representatives last year — though whether he supports the bill in full is unclear. He has likewise ramped up calls for vote-by-mail and early voting options in November in response to COVID-19.
But given the crisis we face, more is needed. Biden should be at the forefront of the democracy fight, especially as President Trump attempts to polarize voting by mail by promulgating myths about voter fraud. This requires a strong, clear and detailed vision of what American democracy should look like.
For starters, any Biden plan should include the two policies that are already on his website, tucked within other plans: automatic voter registration (AVR) and same day voter registration (SDR). AVR is a stellar reform that has spread across the nation since Oregon first adopted it in early 2015. Under AVR, when eligible voters interact with a participating government agency — such as the Department of Motor Vehicles — they are automatically registered unless they opt-out.
SDR allows eligible voters to register at their polling location, a critical failsafe for anyone unable to register prior to the election or who needs to update their registration. During a pandemic, when voter registration drives are heavily disrupted, both SDR and AVR have never been more urgent.
Biden must also take a strong stand against voter suppression. He has already touted the importance of restoring the Voting Rights Act. But he also needs to support federal legislation to prohibit discriminatory voter ID requirements. So too must he back federal restrictions on aggressive voter purges, the wildly imprecise practice of removing voters — often without their knowledge — from registration lists because they have purportedly moved or passed away, or, in effect, because they failed to vote. The Brennan Center for Justice calculates that from just 2016-2018, 17 million voters were purged, a significant increase from the number of purges a decade ago.
Ending voter suppression additionally requires fierce opposition to felon disenfranchisement, the provisions in 48 states that strip those convicted of felonies of the right to vote. Some states remove the franchise only during incarceration, others do so permanently. Currently, Biden has the weakest position on the topic of any major Democratic candidate who ran in 2020.
According to his campaign website, Biden wants to “incentivize states to automatically restore voting rights for individuals convicted of felonies once they have served their sentences.”
This makes very little sense. For one, “incentivizing” states is ineffective at worst and vague at best. Mississippi, for example, will not end their racist voting laws in exchange for federal money or other perks. Only Congress, using its powers to regulate federal elections, can end this stain on our democracy. Moreover, the language of “sentence” can be incredibly regressive. Florida illustrates this point. Voters approved a historic 2018 ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to restore voting rights to those who have completed the terms of their sentence. The GOP legislature then passed a law interpreting the initiative’s language of “sentence” to include payment of all fines, fees and restitutions, creating an effective poll tax that would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands. (A federal court recently limited the effect of this poll tax, though Florida is already looking to appeal the ruling.)
Given their deep roots to the Jim Crow era, felon disenfranchisement laws should be abolished in their entirety. But at the very least, a Biden voting rights plan should support a federal law to automatically restore the right to vote after incarceration.
To meet the current crisis, it is imperative that Biden also lead on the topic of vote-by-mail, especially if he wants to get elected as president during a pandemic. He must make clear that federal legislation is required to mandate that every state permit, at minimum, no-excuse absentee voting. And since transitioning to vote-by-mail on such short notice will be costly and labor intensive, Biden can use his national platform to assist House Democrats in their effort to allocate an additional $3.6 billion in federal funds to help cover states’ election expenses.
Though it may seem wonky for a presidential campaign, Biden would be wise to outline the best practices for any state moving to increased vote-by-mail use. If these conditions aren’t met, states run the risk of disenfranchising voters on a large scale. Some best practices include: offering drop boxes for ballots, allowing voters to cure problems with their ballots, providing pre-paid postage with every request form and ballot and allowing any ballot to count so long as it is postmarked by Election Day. In-person voting, with robust early voting periods, is an essential part of any vote-by-mail system, as well.
The above reforms are just the beginning. Biden’s plan should endorse ranked-choice voting, the Native American Voting Rights Act, additional accessibility provisions for people with disabilities (which is already on his website), statehood for Washington D.C., independent redistricting commissions to end gerrymandering and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
Nitpicking about a democracy reform platform might seem inappropriate in such a moment. Yet, if we are to have any possibility of free and fair elections in the fall and beyond, the leader of the Democratic Party needs to be clear about what steps are required to safeguard and advance our election system. Doing so will bolster the work of state leaders and advocates fighting for reform on the state level. And it will remind those that watch in horror at the growing number of election meltdowns that it does not have to be this way.
Adam Eichen is the Campaigns Manager for Equal Citizens and co-author of Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want.