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Professor of government Mara Suttmann-Lea and voting activist Chakena Sims Perry ’16 discuss what turned into the COVID-19 election.
By Doug Daniels
here’s a storm brewing. At least that’s how things looked as of this writing, just a few weeks before Election Day.
The presidential election of 2020 was already poised to capture the dubious mantle of most-litigated political contest in American history, snatching that distinction from the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election. Then COVID-19 hit, scrambling the electoral process, straining the postal system responsible for delivering mail-in ballots, and exacerbating pre-existing inadequacies that impact how Americans vote and how their votes are counted.
Both the Trump and Biden campaigns spent months preparing for a protracted flurry of legal challenges. Thousands of lawyers mobilized across the country on behalf of the respective campaigns, national party committees and third-party interest groups.
By the end of September, the Republican National Committee and affiliated GOP entities were engaged in at least 40 separate state-level lawsuits. Their Democratic counterparts were involved in a comparable number of suits in roughly 20 states, challenging the GOP’s resistance to various laws and regulations, many of which were created to mitigate public health risks during the pandemic, most related to mail-in voting and other alternative methods, such as ballot drop boxes.
The intricacies and objections vary widely from state to state, but if the intertwined political and legal arguments can be distilled to their most basic levels, Republicans want very stringent regulations to combat what they claim is a system ripe for voter fraud, and Democrats want to ensure legitimate voters aren’t disenfranchised. That concern is particularly relevant to voters of color, younger voters and first-time voters—blocs that studies and data suggest have their mail-in ballots rejected at disproportionate rates by unnecessarily onerous and confusing voting processes.
“One of the biggest challenges is that we have a completely decentralized voting system in this country,” said Conn’s Mara Suttmann-Lea, a professor of government who has researched elections data and mail voting extensively. “There are nearly 8,000 local jurisdictions that administer elections, with a wide variety of ways to vote, different voting requirements, and different types of technology used both to vote and to count votes.”
Suttmann-Lea says that the patchwork system is stitched together with poll workers who are often volunteers and local election organizations that sometimes lack the resources to do their job properly, even in normal times. In the midst of a pandemic, and with record-shattering numbers of mail-in ballots, counting and assessing votes and adhering to various rules surrounding signatures, deadline dates and other requirements will invariably lead to more votes being rejected.
Overall, mail-in voting has historically been quite reliable. It hasn’t been shown to impact the outcome of an election (in other words, to have an inherent bias for one party over another), and there is no data to support claims of widespread fraud. Some states, such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, have had mail-in voting for years with no major instances of fraud. And in one recent high-profile lawsuit in the key presidential battleground state of Pennsylvania, federal Judge Nicholas Ranjan dismissed a challenge by the Trump campaign claiming mail-in voter fraud, ruling that the claims were “speculative” and based on “uncertain assumptions.”
But Suttmann-Lea says that the generally positive overview of mail-in voting belies the need for substantive reforms and safeguards to ensure the electoral system is more accessible and equitable moving forward. She was part of a research team that examined mail-in voting in the 2018 midterm elections in Georgia and found that minority voters’ ballots were indeed disproportionately rejected. Early returns so far this cycle show a similar trend in other states, including in North Carolina, where minority voters’ ballots were rejected at more than four times the rate of white voters’.
For some broader context, in the 2016 general election, nearly a quarter of votes nationally were submitted by mail, with only 1% of them being rejected. But with the share of the mail-in vote exploding this cycle, especially among voters unfamiliar with that method, honest mistakes that lead to ballot rejection have surged as well, and even just 1% of a very large number means a lot of uncounted votes. During the 2020 presidential primaries, at least half a million ballots were rejected—close to twice as many as were rejected in 2016, and a share that has significant implications in terms of the number of minority and first-time voters who could be disenfranchised.
“When it comes to racial and ethnic minority voters, there’s not any reason to expect that these folks as individuals would be, on average, more likely to cast a ballot that gets rejected,” Suttmann-Lea said. “So that tells me that there’s something going on in terms of the quality of bureaucratic services that those voters are receiving from election administrators. Simple things like prepaid postage for mail-in ballots, opportunities for voters to correct common errors, more voter outreach from local administrators and, importantly, allowing ballots to be postmarked by Election Day—instead of mandating that they be received by Election Day—would make a big difference.”
Barriers to voting for marginalized constituencies are nothing new in America, but the pandemic has aimed a blazing spotlight at many of the system’s shortcomings. Chakena Sims Perry ’16 has been fighting since she was at Conn to make participation in the electoral process easier for people of color and young people. This year, she and her colleagues have had to battle harder than ever to inform and protect voters. A Chicago native, Perry serves as chairwoman of the Cook County (Illinois) Young Democrats and is board president of Chicago Votes Action Fund, a nonpartisan organization that promotes increased engagement by young people in the political process. The rise in mail-in voting in Illinois this fall was extraordinary, with half of all votes for president expected to be cast before Election Day. If trends in other states are any indication, that means a disproportionate and significant number of votes from people of color and young people likely won’t be counted, which only contributes to the sense among those voters that they shouldn’t even bother to participate in the first place—a frustrating psychological wall that voting advocates like Perry confront daily.
“Young people need to understand that they’re uniquely positioned to change the outcome of an election if they’re engaged and mobilized,” argued Perry. “So it’s important to provide people with the tools and resources to connect the dots between how the issues in their communities can be solved or influenced by the government and how much power they can have by participating in the political process.”
As chairwoman of the Young Democrats, Perry said one of the sharpest challenges in bringing more young people into the political fold is overcoming common feelings of cynicism or intimidation by fundraising events—an obstacle that became the core of political and party engagement strategies. The solution, she said, is to create programming that doesn’t require giving money right off the bat, so younger people who don’t have money or aren’t sure yet of their commitment and interest level can gain some exposure to the system. That approach, along with establishing ways to train young people to organize and engage with other young people in their own communities, can have a positive ripple effect of building trust and combating disinformation.
College campuses are obviously an essential piece of the puzzle, and Conn is dedicated to providing more tools than ever before to students who want to participate in the process.
This past summer, Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron joined more than 160 college and university leaders across the country by signing the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, a nonpartisan initiative that calls for 100% campus voter turnout for eligible voters.
The initiative, spearheaded by Conn’s Holleran Center for Community Action, continues to build on the College’s tradition of political participation and is being led by Angela Barney, assistant director of the Program in Community Action at the Holleran Center.
“I think now more than ever it is important to encourage young people to be engaged in our political system because they have the ability to shake up politics, whether that be through voting or other civic and political engagement initiatives,” Barney said.
And in October, the College hosted a virtual community discussion titled Conn Votes. Organized as part of the Agnes Gund ’60 Dialogue Project, Conn Votes was presented via Zoom, and touched on a wide range of issues surrounding voter suppression and strategies for encouraging civic engagement.
“The struggle does continue,” Bergeron said. “As we witness unconscionably long lines at polls in Georgia, or listen to conspiracy theories about mass voter fraud, many of us are wondering what we should do to be sure all voices are heard. It is my hope that through dialogue with student, staff, faculty, alumni and trustee leaders we will become not only more deeply engaged in the challenges of this election season, but also more inspired than ever to make our voices heard by exercising this right.”
This type of campus engagement works. In fact, Perry’s passion for community engagement sprang from an internship with Chicago Votes, which she held as a student at Conn in 2013. She spent the summer knocking on doors in 90-degree heat, speaking with people throughout the city and encouraging them to register to vote.
“One day during that internship, I met a man with a felony conviction who said he had been told he couldn’t vote,” Perry recalled. “Something seemed off about that, so I looked into it, and it turned out that in Illinois, people with felony convictions actually can vote. That’s when I realized how misinformation is leaving a lot of important voices out of our democracy, and I wanted to do something about that.”
In the years since, she’s worked on projects to expand political engagement and help reform voting in her state, from working with the public school system to register students to helping make the enormous Cook County jail an actual voting precinct so that inmates awaiting trial can exercise their right to vote.
“There are plenty of tactics that have been used over the years and are still being used today to disenfranchise people of color, from blatantly removing Black people from the voting roles to voter ID laws that unfairly impact people of color,” Perry said. “And when it comes to the issue of whether incarcerated people and people with convictions should have the right to vote, that of course highlights the fact that Black people—particularly Black men—are disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system.”
Perry said that she and her team at Chicago Votes have pushed aggressively for legislation that makes voting easier and more equitable on a fundamental level, such as online voter registration, same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration, all of which broaden access in normal times but can prove critically important during a public health crisis that could have a lingering future impact on the 2022 midterm elections as well.
“Making people feel that voting is something that’s important—but also easy—is our goal,” Perry said. “Voting shouldn’t be something that you have to uproot your entire life to go do. It should be something that’s more normalized and accessible for more people.”
Perry concedes that Illinois isn’t perfect but that the state has made positive recent changes, including implementing early voting with expanded polling places.
“We’re headed in the right direction, but there’s still hard work to be done,” she said. “When we talk about civic engagement, we’re talking about normalizing the voting process, getting more families talking about the importance of voting, actually making a plan to go vote and really knowing what options are at their disposal. That’s how you encourage a culture of civic participation.”