Measured solely by voter turnout, the 2020 election was a major success. The almost 160 million who cast their votes must be celebrated for — in the height of a pandemic — creating voting plans, hitting the mail or standing for hours at polling places masked and armed with hand sanitizer. Republican and Democratic election officials and thousands of poll workers must be equally lauded for delivering a historic vote during this traumatic time.
With those votes now banked, and two years before the next major cycle, we should take this moment to reset the paradigm of how we measure a successful election.
In the throes of COVID-19, with polarization at its height, it is obvious that American elections are uniquely difficult to access. Election after election, we have come to embrace this fact as normal. Accepting what should, in our modern society, be unacceptable.
Of a long list, some of the bigger challenges stick out.
First — in the run-up to this consequential but long-anticipated national event — Washington failed to allocate fresh dollars to the states needing additional help to run their elections. Pressed down by lower tax receipts caused by this pandemic recession, Republican and Democratic election officers across the nation were forced to accommodate more voters, under increasing pressure, with less and less money. Giving states proper resources is an obligation.
Next, we are contending with an embedded national attitude that argues that the best way to protect America is to limit citizens’ voting choices and methods. As if somehow compounding challenges to the existing voting experience will make for a better democracy. This thinking and action burdens the most vulnerable communities — elderly voters, the disabled, overseas citizens, deployed military and rural populations.
Finally, instead of finding new, easier ways to ensure that everyone can cast a ballot, potentially transforming our system to offer greater access, we continue to add barriers in the name of voting security. States purge the rolls before elections, change methods of identity verification between contests, and challenge efforts to expand early and absentee voting. Add to that ballot access constraints, sore loser laws, closed primaries and antiquated voting equipment. All this equals a concerted campaign to discourage people from voting. And these restrictions hit Black, Latinx and Native American voters the hardest, turning the clock back to when their voices were not heard.
We are asking those dedicated to fixing these problems, advocates on the ground like Stacey Abrams, to be even more open to additional tools available to overcome these challenges. America is so focused on in-person voting and the power of mail-in-ballots that we miss the opportunity to explore how technology can be used to transform the election experience.
We should also look for examples beyond our states and shores. India has figured out a way to increase turnout. Election day is a holiday. Polling stations are accessible. With a population where illiteracy is high, the burden of identification and signature matching is not on the voter. Voters are even allowed to use a thumbprint instead of a signature. It’s a delicate dance of analog and digital, but the end goal is clear: don’t stand in the way of people exercising their voice.
What will it take for America to get there?
Stop thinking of voting as just a privilege. It is also a fundamental right. We must shift the responsibility and burden from citizens having to figure out how to get their vote counted and toward our leaders who are charged with easing the way for every American. This election proves if you make it easier to vote, more people will come out.
In 2021, we should also set about imagining a new voting system that reflects the way people truly live their lives in today’s world. We do everything else on our phones — talk, shop, bank and stream. In addition to perfecting voting in person and by mail, we should also be able to vote on our phones. At home, or anywhere, anytime. Essential workers, caregivers, busy mothers, elderly, disabled and disenfranchised populations all use phones and the internet to make their lives a little easier. Why not do the same for voting?
Or we can continue to make voting harder, further frustrating and dividing our fellow citizens every two years. In doing so, we miss this crucial opportunity to use technology to make every voice heard in our democracy.
Kahlil Byrd is CEO of Invest America and an advisory board member of mobile voting company Voatz.
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