American democracy feels at full-on risk.
There are threats people face when trying to vote by mail, the potential for voter intimidation, voter suppression, the threat of voting during a pandemic and more.
CNN reached out to the nonpartisan group that tracks problems at the polls — the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. They’re also part of the coalition of groups that run the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline. If you’ve got a problem voting early or at the polling place on Election Day, that’s a good number to call from anywhere in the country.
Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project, explained the many thousands of calls they’re getting from voters every day, what they’re hearing when they talk to election officials and how the pandemic election is working so far.
The conversation, edited slightly for length, is below.
How to properly vote by mail is a top question
CNN: What kinds of problems are people finding that led them to call you?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: The hotline has two purposes. One is as the information resource to voters. Because now, more voters than ever are voting by mail and they’re not used to that practice. Voters are calling just to get information about how to vote by mail and and also expressed concerns that they requested by-mail ballots and haven’t received them yet.
And you just want to make sure that they get some guidance on how to follow up in the event that they haven’t received their ballots. And part of what we do with the coalition as well is voter education, because we believe that the more empowered voters are, the more they are able to overcome barriers to the vote.
We have been doing a lot of communications outreach about really paying attention to the instructions about how to vote by mail. So that is not going to be rejected because they signed it in the wrong color ink or their signature isn’t matching what’s on the registration form.
The questions we’re getting around vote by mail are about verification, about how to get it, following up on how to properly vote by mail and then also to express concern when they requested the ballots and haven’t received it yet. And they’re worried that they won’t be able to get it back in time.
Read the directions very carefully
CNN: Some of the problems with vote by mail seem like they’re going to happen after people vote, when ballots are questioned, like we’ve seen in North Carolina, and ballots are thrown out or placed on some sort of “pending cure” list. How can you help people if they haven’t heard from the county to say their ballot has been rejected? What are the steps that you’re doing there?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: Yes. So, we’re trying to be as proactive as possible in our voter outreach and education about what to do to avoid being in that pool of ballots that you noted.
But if someone is concerned about whether their ballot has been received or wants to make sure that they don’t fall into that category where their ballot is rejected — this is where we, by providing information to them about what the process is in their community to cure ballots, getting them the information for the the relevant election official to contact, and so we are trying to encourage the voter to reach out, to be as proactive as possible and not to wait to see if they get a notice or not.
But if they have any concerns just to follow up and provide the information they need both about the process and who to follow up with.
Mail vs. drop boxes
WHAT MATTERS: We see these controversies over ballot drop boxes in California and in other places. Is that something that’s bubbling up as an issue you will answer questions about? What are your thoughts on that?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: People are really concerned about getting ballots back on time. … Both that ballot timing issue and the issue around drop boxes are I think going to a lack of confidence about getting ballots back to the election officials on time. We have been engaging with election officials about making sure that there are sufficient drop boxes available. We’ve actually filed lawsuits in both Ohio and Texas, where they’re only making one drop box available per county. And that litigation hasn’t been successful. We think it’s important to have that conversation about making sure that voters have opportunity to get their ballots back and not have to just rely on the Postal Service to do so.
The silver lining of long lines
WHAT MATTERS: Are there issues with early voting nationwide or in specific locations that have crept up that have surprised you?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: Well, I think for me what surprised me is the willingness of people to wait in hours-long lines to vote during the early voting period.
I think it points to the level of enthusiasm to vote and the willingness of people to do whatever it takes to make sure that they cast their ballots. Usually we see the long lines on the general Election Day, and that’s understandable because that’s your only opportunity. But voters are showing up to vote early, and they are really committed to making sure that they can cast their ballots.
We have been getting a lot of voters to report about the long lines that they’re experiencing. We’ve gotten calls from voters where all the machines in a particular early voting site may not be up and working, which is, I’m sure, contributing to the long lines. And we’ve gotten a couple of calls from people who waited in line for about six hours but had to leave because they had other obligations.
But, overall, what we’re seeing is that during this early voting period, despite concerns about social distancing and the pandemic, and despite having to wait in hourlong lines, there’s just a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and interest in this election. I think it’s awful that we don’t have the sufficient enough infrastructure or are willing to provide it to voters so that voters have to endure these long lines in order to cast their ballots.
You may need help with your ballot after Election Day
WHAT MATTERS: Is your strategy for litigation on Election Day different this year in any way? Because of the the mail-in voting and the way it could stretch days afterward as states try to count these ballots, how has that affected what your group is doing to make it easier for people to go out and get their votes counted?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: In the past, we would keep the hotline open the day after for voters who had some follow-up questions. So that would be the extent of having the hotline live for a presidential election.
In 2018 we had to keep the hotline open two weeks after the Election Day, because of the close races in Georgia and Florida and those close margins and the importance of counting provisional and absentee ballots that a lot of voters followed up with us to get information about their ballots and to confirm what they needed to do to have their provisional ballots counted. We’re preparing for that this year as well. Because what we saw in the primary gave us a sense of why absentee or mail-in ballots were rejected. And we anticipate having to cure ballots is going to be significant, and they’re gonna play a significant role in races that are close. And so we’re gonna have a hotline up to several weeks after the election to make sure that those voters have a resource.
Get to know your state’s ballot-curing process
WHAT MATTERS: If I voted by mail, if there’s a problem somebody from the election board or the election office should call me. Are they going to do that after Election Day, too?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: It varies by state. That’s one of the challenges with elections. Because every state has different rules about how to cure ballots. And so we just make ourselves available for a resource in the event that that opportunity is available to voters that they know what it is and how to take advantage of it or to let voters know that there may not be that opportunity.
So, it’s hard to answer the question in general because it just varies across states.
We might not know the winner right away. And that’s fine.
WHAT MATTERS: Would you say that you’re optimistic right now about how things are going or has this been a bad year so far in terms of the questions you’ve been getting and the access people are having?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: I’m just really heartened by the fact that voters are engaged already. I think it’s representing a shift in voting. Before, the focus was on that Tuesday in November and with early voting it offers a lot more opportunities for people to be able to cast a ballot. I do think though, as we move more to vote by mail, that it is going to challenge the expectation that we will know the results across all races at the end of the day, on November 3rd.
I do think it’s important, because there’s this rhetoric about the the viability and and also the legitimacy of vote by mail ballots, so it’s gonna be really important that there is a general understanding and information shared with voters about what it takes to count the ballots. And it may take more than just Election Day to count the ballots, and that it’s fine.
There’s no Covid flexibility for Election Day
WHAT MATTERS: What should people know about the possibility that there is a Covid spike just as voters who wait until November 3 head to polls? If we get to the point that there are new lockdowns in states, will polling places be open? Or do we not know, essentially, what might happen in the next month?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: It’s hard to know what’s gonna happen in the next month, and it is concerning that we are experiencing the spike just as voting is heating up. And, you know, unfortunately, there’s not gonna be the flexibility as there was during the primary, when states could extend election dates. And so as we talked to election officials, we’re asking that question. What’s your plan? How can we ensure that there’s social distancing that’s in place? And I do think that’s why you see those millions of votes cast already. Because voters are also paying attention to what’s happening and want to make sure they get their votes in at the first opportunity.
One last question
WHAT MATTERS: Is there anything I’ve missed, or anything you want people to know out there?
JOHNSON-BLANCO: Just to let them know to really pay attention, if they’re voting by mail, to follow the instructions scrupulously to make sure that their ballots are not at risk of being rejected and that they should make sure they get out there and vote. And if they just have any questions, they shouldn’t let anything deter them from casting their ballot, because elections are just so important. And it’s important that every eligible voter has an opportunity to participate.