Washington D.C. (March 17, 2020) – On March 17, voters in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois cast ballots in their respective state’s presidential preference primaries. The primary election in Ohio did not go forward after state officials moved to postpone the election. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law leads Election Protection, the nation’s largest and longest-running nonpartisan voter protection program operating in its 19th year. Election Protection has been and continues to work with coalition partners to safeguard voting rights across the country. During today’s primary elections, Election Protection provided support for voters through several non-partisan hotlines and through the work of coalition partners in the primary states. The non-partisan hotlines 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682), 888-API-VOTE (888-273-8683), and 844-YALLA-US (844- 925-5287) provided multilingual support to voters.
“The existing barriers and challenges faced by voters have grown exponentially in the wake of the current public health crisis,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The coronavirus crisis has had a cascading effect during the first few weeks of this election cycle and presented growing challenges for voters. Those states that have not yet conducted primaries should move to adopt reforms now to address the burdens faced by voters this election season.”
Clarke continued, “expanding early voting opportunities, lifting restrictions on absentee voting, easing registration deadlines, instituting Same Day Registration, providing full and fair notice regarding electoral changes, and expanding poll worker recruitment efforts are among steps that officials can take to better respond to the crisis. Taking decisive action as early as possible can help to avoid the kind of chaos that ensued in Ohio on the heels of their 11th hour decision to postpone the election. Moreover, states can help instill confidence in the electorate by providing safe and clean environments for voting that comply with social distancing guidelines.”
The spread of COVID-19 altered the state of election administration and Election Protection during this week’s primaries. Election Protection responded to the public health advisories regarding COVID-19 and related social distancing recommendations by bringing many aspects of its program online and using more than a hundred staff and volunteers to respond to calls and complaints from voters in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio.
Election officials need to do more to prepare for elections, particularly given the unprecedented challenges. As in recent elections, voters continued to experience barriers to the ballot box due to restrictive voter requirements, delays caused by long lines, and poorly trained poll workers in today’s primaries. However, the spread of COVID-19 has presented new, unique challenges that have exacerbated the barriers faced by some voters:
- Long Lines: Long lines discourage voter turnout and present a unique risk given the current viral pandemic. While turnout was largely down in today’s primaries, the closure of many polling places, especially those in close proximity to one another, created acute delays in voting at some polling places. Long lines were observed in places such as the Thurgood Marshall Library in Chicago, Illinois.
- Poll Workers: Many pollworkers refused to show for assigned shifts as the pandemic has gripped the country. Voters in several Illinois counties were unable to cast ballots today either because their polling place failed to open on time or voting equipment was not properly set up.
- Self-Isolating or Sick Voters: Voters from Florida contacted the Election Protection and indicated that they were not able to turn out to vote because they were quarantined or were self-isolating. Many of these voters were not able to vote under the state’s laws. Voters in Illinois and Arizona also reported barriers to the polls because they were unable to leave their homes to access the polls given the public health crisis.
- Barriers Faced by Student Voters: Many students who have relocated from their colleges as a result of COVID-19 are no longer present in the area where they are registered to vote. Student voters in Arizona and Florida who were evacuated outside their counties or their states called the hotline to inquire about voting options. The COVID-19 has resulted in unanticipated barriers for student voters who were not able to access absentee or emergency ballots.
- Polling Place Sanitation: Many voters who turned out to vote contacted Election Protection hotline to report that their polling place lacked proper sanitation including gloves for poll workers and hand sanitizer or wipes for frequently used voting equipment, particularly in Illinois. Election officials must do more to ensure clean and safe environments for voters.
Separately, many Ohio voters faced confusion about the status of the primary election or did not receive information about the changing status of the election at all. The Election Protection hotline received a steady stream of calls throughout the day from Ohio voters unsure about whether the primary election had been cancelled. These calls represented about 15% of all hotline calls received. Uncertainty remains about when the postponed election will be held. While the state’s Governor and Secretary of State have announced that the election has been rescheduled for June 2, it is unclear whether they have the authority to make such a change unilaterally. The late postponement of Ohio’s primary proved challenging for voters across the state and left officials with little time to communicate the postponement to voters.
Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Election Protection will be working with national, state, and local partners to protect voting rights through the suite of Election Protection hotlines, non-partisan poll monitoring, and voting rights litigation.