Vote-By-Mail, Critical In Pandemic, Poses Risks For Voters Of Color

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 07: Voters wait in line to enter a polling place at Riverside University High School on April 07, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Voters waited in line about two hours at the school, one o... MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 07: Voters wait in line to enter a polling place at Riverside University High School on April 07, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Voters waited in line about two hours at the school, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to a shortage of poll workers fearful of contracting COVID-19. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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April 22, 2020 10:30 a.m.
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The pandemic stands to bring a major surge of mail-in and absentee voting, both in the remaining spring and summer elections, and in the general election this fall.

But the system — critical for keeping voters safe and slowing the spread of the coronavirus — is not without its shortcomings, and those shortcomings can disproportionately affect minority voters.

As election officials scramble to expand their absentee programs, voter advocates are pressing them to preserve adequate in-person voting options, pointing specifically to the obstacles faced by voters of color. They are also noting the ways that vote-by-mail systems — particularly, if implemented sloppily — tend to disenfranchise minority voters at a higher rate than white ones.

Their concerns have already been borne out in the few states that have large-scale mail-in voting programs; in many of them, minority voters’ use of the options lags behind that of white voters.

“From our experience of doing voter engagement, one of the things is that there is confusion,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, which mobilizes black voting around key races.

Her group recently surveyed registered black voters in swing states and found that 4-in-10 had concerns about voting by mail, a process only 36 percent had experience with. Even with the ongoing pandemic, voting-in-person was about tied with vote-by-mail when the survey-takers were asked their preferred method for November’s election.

“In some ways there’s an instinct that you have about the challenges that make them suspicious or concerned even if they don’t know the specifics,” Shropshire said. “On the reality side, we already know the challenges that black voters face when they vote by mail.”

The potential for racial disparities in how vote-by-mail systems are implemented has already become a flashpoint in upcoming primaries in Ohio, Nevada and Georgia.

Figuring Out How To Reach Voters

Some of the resistance to absentee voting can be chalked up to historical or cultural trends, experts say, such as the longstanding “Souls to the Polls” practice of black church-goers traveling to polling places after Sunday services.

“Early voting has been really, really important for African American communities in encouraging voter participation,” said Danielle Root, an expert at the Center For American Progress who worked on a recent CAP-NAACP paper on the need for in-person voting during the pandemic. “So eliminating all in-person options obviously negatively impacts African American voters in that way.”

There are other systemic issues at play as well. African Americans change addresses more frequently, and they make up a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population. Transience can make participating in vote-by-mail elections challenging.

Given the unreliable nature of postal service on tribal lands, certain mail-in voting policies present unique challenges for Native American communities.

In-person voting is also needed for non-English speaking voters and for voters with disabilities, advocates say.

Pointing to these populations, voter advocates have criticized — and in some places, sued — election officials who have sought to all but eliminate in-person voting during the pandemic, as they have expanded absentee voting opportunities.

“For communities — and this is true for African American voters — that have higher rates of moving and lower rates of voter-by-mail usage, [election officials] need to be figuring out how to reach voters, and not looking for ways to, frankly, cut corners and in turn cut people out of the process,” said Hannah Fried, the national campaign director of the advocacy group All Voting Is Local.

A Distrust Of The Mail System

Election officials can either mitigate or exacerbate the issue depending on how they implement their vote-by-mail systems. Making it easy for voters, including those without internet or printer access, to request a ballot is critical, advocates say, as is giving them multiple options to return it.

“There’s a great distrust in the mail system,” said University of Southern California professor Mindy Romero. Her and others’ research show that voters of color, at greater rates than white voters, cite a lack of trust in the postal service as a reason they don’t cast their ballot in the mail.

In California, where Latinos are underrepresented in vote-by-mail users, some voters prefer to show up in person to submit their mail-in ballots because they have questions about the process, fear that it will be too late or otherwise worry about the postal service, Romero said. 

As for the process of getting ballots out to voters, Georgia has come under fire for its plans to send mail-in ballots to only registered voters listed as “active” on its rolls. Among the inactive voters — i.e. voters who have not voted or responded to election mail in the last five years — that aren’t receiving mail-in ballots, 40 percent are nonwhite, the Washington Post reported.  

‘There Are Ways Of Ameliorating This’

Another concern is what happens to ballots once they have been received by election officials. In some places, minority voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected for issues like signature mismatch or errors in how they are filled out.

An ACLU-commissioned study of ballot rejections in Florida, where about a third of the population uses absentee voting, found notable racial disparities in rejection rates.

“In 2016, VBM ballots cast by Black, Hispanic, and other racial and ethnic minorities were more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be rejected as VBM ballots cast by white absentee mail voters,” the study, which also found age disparities, said.

The author of the study, University of Florida professor Dan Smith, noted to TPM that the level of racial disparities varied county to county, and in some counties such disparities were basically non-existent.

That suggested to him that disparities were the result of differences in how each county was implementing its absentee voting programs, rather than the fault of the voters themselves.

This issue also arose anecdotally in Georgia, where Gwinnett County — a majority minority county — faced litigation in 2018 for ballot rejection practices that produced a significantly higher rate of rejections compared to neighboring counties. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 15 percent of mail-in ballots submitted by Asian voters and 8 percent by black voters were rejected by the county, compared to 2.5 percent of the ballots submitted by white voters.

A judge ordered the county to relax some of the protocols that were causing rejections to spike, and advocates are calling for officials to more broadly institute practices that give absentee voters the chance to fix issues on their ballots.

“There are ways of ameliorating this,” said Ezra Rosenberg, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee who was involved in the Gwinnett County litigation. “The most important thing is to knock down unnecessary barriers to the casting of any vote by mail.”

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